Review: Twelfth Night at Upstairs at the Gatehouse

Anyone who reads this blog or follows me on Twitter will probably have noticed I’m a fully signed-up and completely unapologetic Arrows and Traps fangirl. So it should come as no surprise that I’ve been more than a little excited about their repertory season at the Gatehouse, which sees the same cast performing Twelfth Night and Othello on alternate evenings.

It’s hard to imagine two more different plays – one a comedy about romantic mix-ups and mischievous pranks; the other a dark story of betrayal, jealousy and murder. But in taking them on as a pair, the Arrows have put together a perfect showcase of everything that makes them so unique and fascinating to watch, while simultaneously demonstrating their impressive versatility. If you want to know what this company’s all about, don’t try and decide which show to see; just book for both.


That said, the two productions can and do stand entirely independently of each other, in style, tone, even use of the space – so it seems only fair to review them as such. This review will focus on Twelfth Night – check out the other to read more about Othello.

Arguably one of Shakespeare’s most convoluted plots, Twelfth Night sees a young woman, Viola (Pippa Caddick), fall in love with her master, Orsino (Pearce Sampson) – but he’s in love with Olivia (Cornelia Baumann), who in turn has fallen for Viola, now disguised as a boy called Cesario. Oh, and then Viola’s twin brother Sebastian (Alex Stevens) shows up, pursued by his friend Antonio (Spencer Lee Osborne), to cause further confusion…

Photo credit: The Ocular Creative
Photo credit: The Ocular Creative

Meanwhile, there’s a secondary plot involving a prank played on Olivia’s stuck-up steward Malvolio (Adam Elliott), by her maid Maria (Elle Banstead-Salim) and drunken cousin Sir Toby Belch (Tom Telford), with help from his friend Sir Andrew Aguecheek (David Grace) and the fool Feste (Lloyd Warbey). Get all that?

If it sounds a bit chaotic, that’s because it is – and this production even throws a couple of previously unexplored love triangles into the mix to complicate matters further. As a result, the play ends up as a study of unrequited love in all its forms, and brings a little more balance to the finale, which, as so often with Shakespeare’s comedies, can feel a bit too neat and tidy. Some of the characters will ultimately be satisfied, but just as many will leave disappointed, and if we’re left with a few loose ends – well, that’s the way life is sometimes.

Director Ross McGregor has assembled an impressive cast featuring several familiar Arrows faces. A larger than life story calls for similarly over the top performances, which include Elle Banstead-Salim’s over-excited and giggly Maria and David Grace’s lovably ridiculous Sir Andrew. Cornelia Baumann’s Olivia is rather more, ahem, erotically charged than we’re used to seeing, while Adam Elliott’s poker-faced turn as Malvolio brings the house down, particularly once he gets his yellow stockings out…

Photo credit: The Ocular Creative
Photo credit: The Ocular Creative

But it’s not all high comedy, and there are some beautifully understated moments too – most notably from Lloyd Warbey, whose sad clown Feste, so busy entertaining others that he’s unable to speak of his own sorrow, opens his heart to us instead through song. Pascal Magdinier’s arrangement of contemporary music fits much more naturally than you might expect within the Shakespearean text, and features the likes of The Police and The Proclaimers (yes, really – and it works).

I’ve seen some versions of Twelfth Night that take quite a dark turn, particularly in the treatment of Malvolio, so that we end up feeling somehow complicit in his downfall by laughing. That’s not the case here; though there are undoubtedly some more melancholy moments, the audience is never made to feel uncomfortable. Instead we can sit back, relax and watch love, laughter and music combine in an original and thoroughly entertaining production.

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Interview: Arrows & Traps, Twelfth Night and Othello

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.”

Anna Karenina

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.

Review: Twelfth Night at French Protestant Church, Soho

Twelfth Night: a story of love, disguise and trickery, where nothing and nobody is quite what they seem. It seems fitting that a play in which appearance versus reality is such a prominent theme should be visually stunning, and Scena Mundi’s adaptation doesn’t disappoint; the French Protestant Church in Soho Square provides a unique and beautiful setting for what proves to be a classy production.

Shipwrecked in Illyria, Viola (Harriet Hare) disguises herself as a boy and gets a job working for the Duke Orsino (Pip Brignall). He sends her with messages of love to Olivia (Emma Hall), who falls instead for Viola – who unfortunately happens to be in love with Orsino. Then Viola’s twin brother Sebastian (Clare Brice) turns up, and everything gets even more confusing, before finally resolving itself in typically neat Shakespearean fashion. Meanwhile, Olivia’s drunken cousin Sir Toby Belch (Jack Christie) is hatching a plot with his friends Maria (Clare Brice again), Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Thomas Winsor) and Fabian (David Keogh) to make a fool of the pompous Malvolio (Martin Prest) by convincing him Olivia’s in love with him. And all this is quietly observed by the Fool, Feste (Edward Fisher) – who, ironically, may just be the wisest man on the stage.

Cecilia Dorland’s production takes as its starting point the vanity and self-obsession of Shakespeare’s characters, and transforms the aisle into a shiny blue catwalk for the play’s fashion show-inspired opening. Though the fashion theme doesn’t explicitly come up again after this scene, it’s present in Georgia Green’s costumes, which are somewhere between contemporary and modern, giving the play – and each character – a unique and timeless style that fits well in the unusual setting.

Photo credit: Jessy Boon Cowler
Photo credit: Jessy Boon Cowler

The cast do a great job of teasing out the complexities and less attractive aspects of their characters, and at the same time revealing the play to be more than a straightforward comedy that’s just out for laughs. Though there are a good number of laughs to be had – Martin Prest in particular gives an outstanding comic performance as Malvolio, with an array of disapproving facial expressions (and a surprising flexibility during the infamous yellow stockings scene), and the scene in which Orsino starts to feel an attraction to Viola in her boy’s disguise is both funny and sweetly touching. On the other hand, the later confusion between Viola and Sebastian falls a little bit flat, possibly because the two actors playing the twins look nothing alike.

While Malvolio is easy to laugh at because he’s so consistently unpleasant, there are other characters who turn unexpectedly to the dark side, and it’s these performances that prove most memorable. Sir Toby, played by Jack Christie, seems at first to be a loveable drunk, but ultimately reveals himself to be nothing more than a bully. Tricking Malvolio is one thing, but when he turns on his friend Sir Andrew (played with a child-like vulnerability by Thomas Winsor), it feels a step too far, and is actually a bit uncomfortable to watch. Edward Fisher’s Feste is also a mildly discomfiting presence; as the Fool, he provides entertainment through his wit and music, but at the same time has the feeling of a conductor, seeing and knowing all, with the power to make or break his fellow characters as he wishes.

Scena Mundi’s adaptation of Twelfth Night has plenty to recommend it: visually striking, with strong performances and several laugh out loud moments, the play also offers up a warning about the dangers of putting style over substance – particularly in matters of the heart. Great fun and well worth a look, especially if you enjoy your theatre in unusual locations.

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Review: Twelfth Night at Castle Cornet

Last summer, I was in Guernsey visiting a friend, and she took me along to an outdoor production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in the appropriately magical setting of the historic Castle Cornet. The theatre company, Oddsocks, were new to me, but two things soon became clear – they’re brilliant, and they’re completely bonkers. Fortunately, when it comes to theatre, this is my favourite combination.

So when I arranged to visit Guernsey again last weekend, and my friend told me Oddsocks were back, I jumped at the chance to see what they’d made of Twelfth Night. I was fairly confident that the play’s love triangles, gender bending, mischievous pranks and general air of confusion would offer plenty of opportunities for mayhem – and I wasn’t disappointed. Despite the weather, which was dismal to say the least, a great night was had by all; Oddsocks productions go on come rain or shine, and it’s a testament to how enjoyable they are that nobody got up and left when the heavens opened in act 2.

Photo credit: Oddsocks

Once again, the company’s take on the Bard’s work is fresh, unique and very, very funny. I never would have thought that I’d see two Shakespearean characters singing Let’s Get Ready to Rhumble… but now I can cross that particular goal off my bucket list. Because this is the Britpop musical version of Twelfth Night, and if you think that sounds mad – well, it is. But that doesn’t mean it’s not all kinds of amazing. Fans who enjoy conventional Shakespeare may object to Duke Orsino’s ‘if music be the food of love’ speech being replaced by Roxy Music; then again, those people are unlikely to be found at an Oddsocks play – or at least, not for long. (But do be prepared for the cast to heckle you on the way out.)

Led by director, and born showman, Andy Barrow, the cast basically just get up on stage and have a good time, dealing with whatever happens to come their way, whether or not it’s in the script. I particularly enjoyed the drunken antics of Sirs Toby Belch and Andrew Aguecheek (Kevin Kemp and Gavin Harrison), who spend much of their time giggling and falling over, and at one point wander into the audience in search of booze. And I may never be able to forget Malvolio (Andy Barrow) and his yellow stockings – for all the wrong reasons.

It’s all so chaotic that at times it’s hard to tell what’s planned, and what’s been made up on the spot (although I’m pretty sure the pause to fix their dangerously sagging roof with a mop was a one-off). In fact, the whole production plays pretty fast and loose with Shakespeare’s original text, but given that the audience are all having such a great time, I’m going to bet he’d be willing to forgive that.

Photo credit: Oddsocks

If I had to sum up an Oddsocks production, I’d probably describe it as ‘Shakespeare does panto’. You’ve got music, slapstick, audience participation (where else can you get up on stage and throw wet sponges at one of the actors?), a few pointed references to current affairs, and even a girl dressed as a boy. The only difference, really, is it’s way better than any panto I’ve ever been to.

Unfortunately the Oddsocks tours don’t tend to take in Kent or London, but they do seem to have become something of a fixture in Guernsey. So I guess I’ll be forced to head back that way next summer and do it all over again… It’s a tough old life.