Putting on Shakespeare is always a bit of a gamble. While the Bard’s plays are guaranteed to attract people, their popularity and familiarity can be the death of a production. Play it too safely, and everybody will be bored. Be too creative, and people will bemoan the lack of respect for the original. Merely Theatre, a small British theatre company currently touring the country with Twelfth Night and Romeo & Juliet, seems to have found the recipe for winning the gamble. Bawdy, passionate and ridiculously entertaining, their refreshing take on the romantic comedy Twelfth Night performed at the New Theatre Royal would surely have pleased the master himself.
The company specialises in stripped-back, gender-blind performances of Shakespeare. For every role in their productions, an actor is paired up with an actress, and they then take turns in performing the part, meaning that sometimes men play women and vice versa.
Twelfth Night itself actually includes a young woman, Viola, pretending to be a man called Cesario, so it’s a perfect fit – and since Viola was played by a male actor (Simon Grujich) that day, you had the unusual case of a man playing a girl playing a man. Additionally, the male characters Malvolio, Sebastian (both Ffion Jones), Antonio and the Fool (both Tamara Astor) were played by women, while Lady Olivia was played by a man (Luke Barton).
Admittedly, this can be confusing at first, but after a few minutes it works surprisingly well. Considering that this romantic comedy not only sees Viola – then disguised as Cesario – fall in love with Duke Orsino (David Gerits), who is in love with Lady Olivia, who in turn falls for Cesario, but also includes nearly identical looking twins, a bit of confusion was probably intended anyway.
A character’s gender is indicated both by clothes and by posture and gestures. Luke Barton’s Lady Olivia, for example, wears a classy black jumpsuit with wide, flaring legs and moves as elegantly and feminine as a Disney princess – he is absolutely convincing, as are the other actors. Tamara Astor’s mischievous Fool is the highlight, stealing the scene every time she is on stage. Ffion Jones’ Malvolio, by contrast, could do with a more understated performance. She tries a little too hard to convince everyone she is a man by exaggerating both her movements and her voice.
Sticking to Shakespearean language, the whole cast seemingly effortlessly throws around thys and thees and thous as if this were their natural way of talking, but including references to contemporary popular culture (e.g. “10 points to Gryffindor!”) mixes things up nicely, as does picking a random gentleman from the audience to perform a wedding ceremony on stage.
The set design is simple, with three wooden arches in the background holding curtains through which the characters enter and exit scenes, and there are hardly any props except for a handful of letters and a bench. For most of the 95 minutes, everything is brightly lit, but night is indicated with a dimmer, colder shade, and at one point, everything is completely dark except for two torches soaring over the stage. The Fool performs a few songs on stage, but there is no background music or other sound added.
All this allows the audience to completely focus on the story – and the actors. You can’t help but be charmed by the company’s dedication. In the end, everybody left with a bright smile on their face, which is probably the best compliment for the actors.