With Christmas safely behind us, ’tis now the season for Twelfth Night, and Yard Players’ new production of Shakespeare’s popular comedy is one of several opening over the next couple of weeks in London. It may also quite possibly be the darkest, with director James Eley injecting a note of malice into not only the always questionable antics of Maria and Toby, but also the play’s traditionally neat and cheery conclusion, in which more than one character casually transfers their affections and everyone is seemingly okay with that.
From the start of this version, which has been updated to take place in the 21st century, the laughs are there – but so too is the sense that all is not well. Orsino (Duncan Drury) is quickly revealed to be little more than a petulant child who wants what he can’t have. Maria (Heloise Spring), whose character is conflated here with that of Feste the fool, greets everyone with a mocking sneer – including a recently shipwrecked and clearly distressed Viola (Jess Kinsey), who believes her twin brother Sebastian (James Viller) has drowned.
Malvolio (Daniel Chrisostomou), on the other hand, is here not so much pompous as just a bit of an oddball, his loyalty and affection for his boss Olivia (Candice Price) making him an easy target. The same can be said for Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Drury again), a likeable fool whose lack of brains see him walk time and again into the traps set by his permanently inebriated “friend” Toby (Pete Picton).
This means that even the scenes which are usually particularly riotous – Malvolio and his yellow stockings being the most obvious example – feel somewhat subdued, which allows the audience to view what’s happening in a different way. Viewed from this new perspective, Malvolio’s storyline is shown to be what it is (and in fact always has been): gaslighting – having first made their victim believe Olivia secretly loves him, Maria and Toby go on to try and convince him he’s imagined the whole thing, and nearly drive him to actual madness in the process. At the same time, almost every relationship in the play is revealed to be entirely hollow, based solely on physical attraction, lust for power, or financial gain. The final scene is particularly well done – unlike in most productions, there’s little happiness on display, even from those characters who seem to have got what they wanted.
All that said, the play still makes for an entertaining night out, and there are plenty of laughs to be had from the gender swapping, mistaken identities and general mischief going on. The setting is a bit muddled; it’s obvious we’re in a seaside town, and most of the characters wear either blue or red lanyards, marking them early on as rivals in business as well as romance, though it’s quite difficult to make out what kind of company they all work for. There are suggestions, too, in the posters that adorn the set, that Orsino may have political ambitions, while Maria – who’s officially employed by Olivia – seems to have a rather lucrative sideline of her own.
As a slightly weary Twelfth Night veteran, personally I enjoyed this more sombre adaptation of the play, which remains accessible to newcomers while offering a fresh perspective to those who’ve seen it before. It may not have the belly laughs of other productions, but does ask some interesting – and refreshing – questions about whether a story that’s had audiences in stitches for centuries was really all that funny in the first place.
Twelfth Night is at the Brockley Jack Studio Theatre until 1st February.