Twelfth Night At the attic theatre, review by Peter Buckroyd.

Twelfth Night

The Attic Theatre

Despite quite a lot of evidence to the contrary Shakespeare is alive and well and residing at The Attic Theatre. Tread the Boards Theatre company have opened their 2023 season with a double bill playing in repertoire until April 23 of Twelfth Night and Romeo and Juliet.

I’ve not seen a Twelfth Night quite like this before. It’s usually a springlike or summery festive comedy but director John-Robert Partridge sets it in often rather subdued light in Dublin creating a rather wintry feel in keeping with two near drownings, the persecution of Malvolio, gender blindness and thwarted and misconceived love. Shakespeare had in mind a play for the end of the festive season twelve days after Christmas. I have to admit that I usually find the shenanigans of Sir Toby Belch (here played by John-Robert Partridge) and Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Daniel Grooms) rather tedious, but not so here. They are true bacchanalians, drunk as skunks most of the time, Sir Toby farting from the text’s pickled herrings. Fabian is usually a nothing role but Sean MacGregor makes a splendid energetic Irish barman as well as playing other bit parts in the play.

The play opens with Viola having been washed ashore and then being disguised as Cesario. The specs are a great touch and Freya Cooper is completely convincing as Cesario. Orsino (Joshua Chandos) is not quite what I expected – a member of the English colonisers of Ireland and less pompous, more charming than most Orsinos I have seen. There is a scene in the middle of the play when Orsino and Cesario are sitting on a bench talking and hilariously eating fish and chips out of a newspaper packet. You can see how Orsino could have imagined that Cesario was male. The scene’s simplicity is close to perfection and the slightly shifting physical distances between them both telling and judged impeccably. This well judged variation in physical distance can also be seen to great effect in the first scene between Olivia and Cesario where there are immediate vibrations between them.

The part of Sebastian is usually a thankless task. He doesn’t appear until the second half of the play and then is usually just a device to complicate the plot. Dominic Selvey plays him simply and effectively after a surprising shirtless entrance and although the play’s denouement does drag a little (Shakespeare’s fault, I think, rather than Partridge’s) Selvey provides a nice mixture of pragmatism and nonsense.

I have thought for many years that Feste was Shakespeare’s self portrait. After all he says he lives hard by the church (as Shakespeare did). He’s an entertainer, a player, a clown, an actor, a singer, a composer. Partridge places Feste at the centre of the play, providing Irish music for the songs, almost choreographing the action from a seat on top of the Guinness barrel or the Jamesons one. In a welcome return to The Attic the highly energetic Lucas Albion is eminently watchable. He can sing, he can dance, he can play the guitar. He’s a splendid creation, his frequent smiling a very nice contrast to Malvolio’s assumed smiling. The beard he assumes for the gulling of Malvolio (with the medieval connotations of ‘berd’) is both funny and daft; Feste adds to the nonsense by assuming a physical disguise as well as a vocal one to gull someone in the dark when he’s not even inside the prison.

In his three piece suit Edward Manning is as good as Malvolio as I have seen him in his many roles for Tread the Boards. More often than not actors overplay Malvolio but Manning doesn’t do this at all. He is a bit pompous and stolid but he gains more than a little sympathy at the end of the play. He is, of course, in this production an outsider as an English steward in the house of an Irish lady, Olivia played by Ciara Lane. As an outsider Malvolio doesn’t stand a chance in this society. Partridge also makes Antonio into an outsider, not just because he is accused of being a pirate but because he is from Northern Ireland and therefore out of place in Dublin. Wilson McDowell doesn’t have a great deal to do in the play but does it well, though I might have liked to have seen a bit more made of the relationship between Antonio and Sebastian, hinted at but not developed.

Immediately after the interval Partridge defines a significant shift in the play by having Olivia exchange her all black mourning dress for a dress with a black background but coloured flowers on it. Maria, too, undergoes a shift, wearing a vibrant red dress to replace her earlier black one. There was also a shift I had not expected. There is just a hint that Feste has worked out what was going on with the disguises. I had not thought of this before but it makes complete sense if Feste is also the playwright.

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