I last saw Scena Mundi Theatre Company performing Twelfth Night at the stunning French Protestant Church in Soho Square earlier this year. This week they were back, in an equally beautiful venue, with a one night only performance of the same play… but a very different adaptation.
Billed as ‘the new masters of concise classics’, the Scena Mundi Mechanicals specialise in short versions of Shakespeare’s plays, inspired by the memorable amateur actors of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. It’s an intriguing and clever concept, which makes Shakespeare’s work very accessible and adds an original twist to a play many of us will have seen a good few times before. As the four actors – Masters Phil, Jack, Ned and Martin – divide up the roles between them, the stage is set for chaos and comedy, featuring a bearded lady, a dodgy wig, floating hats, and of course yellow stockings.
Given the complex storyline of Twelfth Night, director Cecilia Dorland has done well to cut the script down to almost exactly an hour in a way that still makes sense, and leaves us with a whistle-stop tour of all the key points and characters (well, almost – we’re forced to lose Maria, with Sir Toby Belch taking her place as the architect of Malvolio’s downfall). The performance too, with all its swift costume and character changes, is very skilfully executed by the four-man cast of Pip Brignall, Jack Christie, Edward Fisher and Martin Prest, with nicely understated musical support from flautist Emma Hall.
In fact if anything it’s a bit too well executed – the Mechanicals concept is introduced at the beginning but then seems largely forgotten during the play itself, and though there’s the occasional missing prop or actor’s tantrum, the production on the whole is extremely polished. It feels odd to complain that the acting in a play is too good, but what makes the Midsummer Night’s Dream Mechanicals fun to watch is the fact that their performance is so shambolic, and there’s potential in Scena Mundi’s adaptation for even more well-intentioned mayhem. This band of Mechanicals never get their lines wrong, forget which part they’re playing, or stop the performance to explain to the audience what’s going on; the director never has to intervene, and aside from one brief exchange at the beginning of the show, nobody tries to play all the parts. None of which is a bad thing – it just feels like the framing concept could be further developed for maximum comedy value.
All that said, this is already a highly original and entertaining production of a classic play. As a bite-sized introduction to Twelfth Night, it’s perfect for newcomers to Shakespeare, who might find the usual two-and-a-half or even three-hour stretch a bit much to take. And let’s be honest, it’s always fun to watch good actors acting badly. This one-off performance was the first in a series of events at St Giles in the Fields to launch Scena Mundi’s 2017 season, and I look forward to seeing more of them in the coming months.
Visit the website for more information about Scena Mundi Theatre Company.