Over the past three years, Arrows & Traps have become well known for their unique adaptations of Shakespeare and other classic works – most recently Macbeth and Anna Karenina. But the company’s latest project is their most ambitious to date, as they prepare to perform Twelfth Night and Othello in repertory at Highgate’s Upstairs at the Gatehouse this November.
The decision to take on two plays simultaneously stemmed from director Ross McGregor’s interest in exploring the duality in Shakespeare’s work. “Shakespeare’s comedies are not just simply throwaway funny things that end in orgiastic shotgun weddings. His tragedies are not just gloomy tear-stained stab fests. Iago, the antagonist in Othello, is darkly funny whilst he does unspeakable things to innocent people, and the comic treatment of Malvolio in Twelfth Night descends into dark cruelty and manipulation. The blending of light and dark seemed to be interesting to explore.
“But it was also a practical decision. If I was asking audiences to come back and see a second show, I wanted to provide a varied menu. Twelfth Night is an unrelenting carnival fun fair of laughter, love and lyricism – and it’s also a full blown musical – whereas Othello is a psychological thriller, set in a hyper-sexualised, racist and cut-throat world of politics and militia. So I thought people would enjoy seeing the same ten people navigate the different worlds and present two sides of the same coin: the birth and demise of love.”
Of course, performing two plays at once brings with it new challenges: “I’m currently running a sweepstake on which of the cast comes onstage in the wrong costume and says the wrong opening line,” says Ross. “It does impose more time constraints on us; we have to work faster, move on quicker, correct and evaluate with more brevity, there’s less room to devise and experiment. Choices are still being made, options are still being explored, but there is now a much more pressing sense of the need for producing work each day and drawing a line under it.
“The line-learning element doesn’t seem to be too much of an issue; I’ve structured the castings so that each actor has a main role in one of the shows, and a supporting part in the other, so no-one is drowning under a tidal wave of iambic pentameter. We use the same set for both, so I suppose that might challenge us to create different stage pictures across the two shows, but with the material being so different, and the characters each actor plays being so contrasting, I haven’t noticed any repetition. In fact, there’s some nice echoes in there across the shows, for instance the bed that Pearce Sampson (Orsino) woos Pippa Caddick (Viola) in is the same one where he (now as Iago) contrives her death (as Desdemona). So I’m enjoying that aspect of it.”
Unusually, the cast for the two plays features only two new faces: “We usually have more, but this project seemed to represent the culmination of the last three years, so I wanted to show that in the casting. We have David Grace, playing the lusciously adorable and insipid Sir Andrew in Twelfth Night, and then the lovesick puppet Rodorigo in Othello, an altogether darker and more tragic role. I’ve been a fan of David for about two years, so it’s an honour to finally get to work with him. He brings an energy and dedication to his work, he’s one of the most specific actors I’ve ever heard in terms of his delivery and responses to the text; he’s flourishing as an Arrow and it’s a pleasure to support.
“Then we have Lloyd Warbey playing Feste in Twelfth Night – the lady’s fool and her “corrupter of words”, and Lodovico in Othello. You may be familiar with Lloyd from his work on Art Attack on the Disney Channel, and he’s worked all over the country, so it’s a privilege to have him involved. For Feste, you need a showman, an entertainer and a comedian, and yet there’s a melancholic sadness to him; he’s broken, lonely and jaded, and it’s great to see Lloyd switch in and out, hear him spin the language with a cheeky grin on his face.
“The other eight members of the cast are my core members, the people I would trust with any script, and the people that without them there would be no Arrows & Traps. There’s no greater gift for a director than having a cast like this. They’re a pleasure to see every day, and the amount of effort and energy they put into both shows is humbling.”
As always, the Arrows are keen to delve into the text and find something fresh and original: “I think the main element of Twelfth Night that feels new to me is the darker and melancholic elements. I’ve seen quite a lot of productions of the play that focus on the comedy but ignore the other elements. Shakespeare first staged Twelfth Night on the anniversary of the baptism of his own twin children, one of whom had drowned several years before. I think this was deliberate. On one of the days of the year where he perhaps thought of his son the most, Shakespeare put on a play where two twins find each other again after both nearly drowning. There’s a wish-fulfilment, a consoling father fantasy in that which is heartbreakingly sad. Twelfth Night to me is a dreamscape where your wildest dreams can come true, where gender and sexuality are fluid and transient, where chaos flies with majestic abandon.
“In terms of Othello, I wanted to examine what it means to be a Moor in modern times. So often, we take the word “Moor” to simply refer to someone’s race, to be black or North African, but it originally referred to their faith – that they were Muslim. We’re staging this in November, during the month where Donald Trump may or may not become leader of the most powerful nation in the world – a man who’s built a campaign on fear-mongering against Muslims, a man who campaigns for power on the promise that he will exclude, interrogate and remove people of a particular religion. Othello seems timely to me in that regard.
“I also wanted especially to show Desdemona in a better light. So often she’s portrayed as this weak, blonde willowy girl who meekly accepts her own murder, but to me she’s incredibly strong-willed and independent. She goes against her father for the man she loves, she rejects prejudice and society’s expectations of her and is unwilling to let it oppress or minimise her. She’s seduced by stories of battle and violence, tales of the unexpected and grotesque, which to me shows that this is an adventurous, outspoken, and vivacious young woman, and I wanted to show a Desdemona like that, which is something I’d never seen before.”
And now for the big question – to see just one play, or both? “I’ve directed the two shows to be able to stand on their own two feet independently of each other, but there’s something exciting about seeing both,” Ross suggests. “There are also five days in the run where you can see both in the same day, which would be something of a marathon, but since the Gatehouse is above a pub, you can have dinner in-between, have a drink and make a day of it.
“But if you could only see one of them, you have a choice between a clown-filled chaotic musical of love and passion and confusion, or a darkly thrilling study of the breakdown of a relationship in a violent and brutal society. They’re two hours each, so we’re not talking about a four-hour snore fest, but two fast-paced, visceral rollercoasters. Of course, the producer in me would like to add that if you book for both you get £2 off your second ticket…”
Book now for Twelfth Night and Othello from 1st-19th November.