Royal Exchange, Manchester
15th May 2017
In the middle of a blue-green floor, adrift on an island of sand, a rickety timber construction looms overhead. Upon this island Viola is washed ashore after a shipwreck in which her brother is presumed to have died. She disguises herself as a man and confusion and intrigue unfold. Director Jo Davies skillfully balances the various elements of Shakespeare’s play – love, loss, disguise, comedy and music – so that none dominate at the expense of the other. Her Illyria is shaped by the possibilities present within the play’s perilous journeys, personal discoveries and gender fluidity.
Leslie Travers gifts the production a striking design that is used to great effect. The wooden vortex spins, descends and encloses. Sand and smoke spew from the skies as storms rage. The pile of sand grows, is swept aside and is picked up in handfuls to be thrown aimlessly as characters ponder their fate. The set’s main elements are transitory, shifting in shape and reforming anew.
There is no grandeur to the domestic settings – only a plain table, a few candles, shabby armchairs and a half collapsed chaise longue. Is Illyria in the midst of austerity?
Initially the traditional comedic elements seem underdone. Mina Anwar’s Maria might still be a sparky and resourceful maid but Sir Toby Belch and Sir Andrew Aguecheek are unusually down at heel and fraying at the edges. When they cause uproar one evening in the Countess Olivia’s household they arrive clutching bottles of Jägermeister, a half-eaten kebab and shopping trolley full of plundered tat. It’s as if they have stepped through the door from a cast night out in Blackpool. This is humour rooted in a recognisable world not so over-done as to become circus clowning. At times, it makes the recent National Theatre production seem like a grotesque pantomime in comparison. Though restrained, the moments of comedy are all the more effective for it and the audience revel in them – one of the biggest laughs is generated by an imaginative moment of innuendo involving hand cream.
Similarly Malvolio, too often monstrously over-egged is here merely a self-important tweed suited hipster smugly folding up his Brompton bike. His appearance in ‘yellow stockings’, the result of a cruel trick, sees him transformed in to another cliche of our times – the MAMIL (or in this case a Middle Aged Malvolio In Lycra). Davies generously keeps his humiliation in check. There is no doubt he has been wronged, and in incarceration his confusion is laced with a quiet despair.
The production’s thoughtful approach pays great dramatic dividends, refreshing well-worn characters and finding flashes of humour in unlikely places. Kate Kennedy’s Countess Olivia is a Queen Bee around whom everyone else revolves but she also has the makings of a voracious vamp. Her newly discovered passion for Cesario bursts from her and her madcap man-eating pursuit of him/her is terrifyingly funny.
Even a cursory glance will tell you no one is going to put Kate O’Donnell in a corner and beneath her big grey coat there is a Feste festooned in sequins and feathers. O’Donnell stalks the stage – sharp of wit & agile with ‘armography’. Equally effective in her quieter moments, she transforms into a cool cabaret chanteuse, world-weary and wise.
In an incredibly likeable cast Faith Omole as Viola is a standout presence. Her performance is hugely engaging – combining an emotional depth with effortless comic charm. Her journey from despair to joy is deservedly the one we find ourselves most invested in.
Music is used to striking effect throughout. The Balkan influences create a strong sense of place. Often the musicians appear embedded within the action as they lead players in procession across the stage or swell the numbers at a merry party. Sometimes it can be a subtle musical intervention as when Feste serenades the dimming of the house lights, to signal the start of the play’s second half, with a simple tune on a mouth organ.
Jo Davies’ production is nuanced and has an intelligent attention to detail. She leaves a trail of thoughtful references for her audience to mull over. Some of the visual imagery is rich with contemporary resonance. Viola plucked from the sea clad in an orange life jacket and carried at shoulder height as if lifeless. Later, suitcases lie open with contents pouring out on to the sand. We can not fail to be reminded of so many recent journeys across dangerous seas to safety.
Sometimes there are delightful surprises. The decision to have Viola, and not Feste, sing “Come away, come away, death, And in sad cypress let me be laid” to Orsino brings a fresh youthful yearning to the words. Accompanied by a heart-breaking guitar we see Viola desperately struggling with the loss of her brother while discovering deep feelings of love which she can not reveal. It is a bitter-sweet moment – unshowy but incredibly moving.
This subtlety of approach permeates the very final few moments. As a joyful group leave the stage talking of marriages and reconciliation (even the wronged Malvolio we are reassured will be entreated “to a peace”) the final spotlight dwells on those who find themselves left outside. Sebastian silently hands his purse back to Antonio, before slipping away to his new life, leaving his friend alone and bereft at the loss of the man he adores. Meanwhile O’Donnell launches into Feste’s final meditation on life, at one point twirling defiantly in the eye of a storm. She exits to a whispered refrain of “When that I was a little tiny boy”. A final quiet reminder of the powerful possibilities offered by transformation.