It’s 400 years (and don’t we know it) since Shakespeare uttered his final soliloquy and our theatres are overwhelming us with new versions of Hamlet, King Lear and Henry V.
But Twelfth Night, a riotous tale of mistaken identity and gender swapping, seems overlooked.
However, this hugely enjoyable and entertaining romp has been picked up by the small but ambitious Thick As Thieves Theatre Company and is currently delighting North London audiences with a lively production at The Hope Theatre.
Forget stagy grandeur and important speeches, given by theatrical knights and Shakespearean luvvies, this is a rollicking good yarn, playfully told by a cast of four fresh and exciting talents.
It opens with a song and those unforgettable lines: “If music be the food of love, play on” but The Bard largely keeps grandstanding and theatrical excess out of this merry-go-round of tangled love and laughter.
Twelfth Night is a convoluted tale involving twins who are separated by a shipwreck. Believing her brother dead the young girl, Viola, unsure of herself in a foreign land, decides to dress as a boy and serve as a squire to the local bigwig, the lovesick Count Orsino.
He has Viola, now called Cesario, taking messages to the object of his affection, the widow Olivia.
But the feelings aren’t reciprocated and, worse, Olivia falls for the young go-between. Meanwhile Cesario is smitten with Orsino.
Director and co-star, Nicky Diss, has pared down the story to a manageable 100 minutes but it has meant jettisoning the duke’s initial horror, and then conflicted feelings, over the attentions of his young “male” servant which usually fleshes out the love triangle.
There is a much more ribald second story involving two of Shakespeare’s great comic characters, the gross and outrageous free-loader, Sir Toby Belch, and his chinless sidekick and drinking buddy, Sir Andrew Aguecheek.
The pair, insulted and humiliated by Olivia’s pompous steward Malvolio, plot revenge with the aid of a serving girl and it is a particularly malicious affair.
It takes quick wits and an even quicker costume change for just four players to perform all the roles in this riotous tale but Nicky Diss, Thomas Judd, Oliver Lavery and Madeleine MacMahon are on top form.
The clever direction ensures that two characters, played by the same actor, aren’t on stage at the same time although this comes a little unstuck in a moment of madness towards the end.
But this likeable and engaging company simply enlists the help of an audience member (who looks startled, terrified, or chuffed – or a combination of all three) for a few seconds (don’t panic, it’s painless).
The prose is delivered entirely naturally and with considerable warmth by a quartet who not only understand the dialogue but can squeeze every emotion out of it. This playful Twelfth Night gives Diss the opportunity to roar and bluster as the Barbour-wearing Belch, and she’s a hoot, while her Viola is a picture of innocence and eloquence.
Judd swaps from the infatuated Orsino, jumper knotted around his neck (the latest fashion in Illyria) to the drippy Tory wet, Aguecheek, in tweed and flat cap, in the blink of an eye.
Lavery and MacMahon pick up most of the remaining roles. It means that one minute the bearded Lavery is playing the fool, Feste, in dreadlocks, the next he’s the missing twin, Sebastian, or a trench-coated copper, or the stuffy suited and booted Malvolio as well as a cameo as a sea captain. His co-star veers from widow’s weeds and flirtatiousness to vengeful serving wench and a wanted sailor. Every character a delight to watch.
The only drawback to this superb production wasn’t of its making. The Hope Theatre, sitting in a room above the Hope pub in Upper Street, suffers from the intrusions of the outside world.
On Tuesday night, when I saw the production, it sounded like someone was re-shooting The Sweeney right outside the building as an endless cacophony of police sirens attempted to drown out the actors’ speeches. When I left the street was stuffed with police making an arrest. So, excitement on and off the stage in Islington.
Don’t miss it this bold, bawdy and entertaining Twelfth Night, running until April 30.
A cast of four conjure up a bold, lively and immensely enjoyable production of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night at The Hope Theatre.