Tricycle Theatre, London NW6
Opened 2 September, 2008

“One of the most exciting and accessible Shakespeare productions of recent years,” claim the programme notes of this RSC/Filter co-production, first seen at the Cube in Stratford-upon-Avon in 2006. It certainly is exciting to see the six actors and four musicians (for what little that distinction is worth here) engage in Filter’s trademark of creating environments out of sound rather than space or décor. The opening number which prompts Orsino’s remark, “If music be the food of love, play on” is cool jazz; the self-satisfied steward Malvolio’s fantasy about being Count Malvolio is accompanied by a heavy, King Crimsonoid groove; the closing “Hey ho, the wind and the rain” song becomes an ebullient ska stomp.
Elsewhere, soundscapes are created with bass, drums, microphones, an old analogue synthesizer and what appear to be wireless games-console handsets triggering audio samples on laptop computers. The storm that shipwrecks Viola is heralded by a shipping forecast warning of gales in “Viking, North Utsire, South Utsire, Illyria...” and later the sea-captain’s part of the dialogue with Viola comes out of the transistor radio in the same voice.
Nor is it just sound that is generated off the cuff: when Viola decides to disguise herself as a young man, actress Poppy Miller cadges a jacket and hat from members of the audience. Other punters are prevailed upon to dance and sing along with actors, particularly during a prolonged drunken-catch sequence which builds gradually from a reflective whisper to a gloriously pissed racket, and even to join Oliver Dimsdale’s Sir Toby Belch in downing tequila slammers.
Accessible, though, is another matter. Whilst its 85 minutes are packed with delights, I’m not sure it scores that high on comprehensibility. Having Miller double as both Viola and her brother Sebastian, and then cutting back the latter role to the bare minimum before a climax which reunites the pair, will only ever result in a mess which relies entirely on the audience’s indulgence and prior knowledge of the play. Jonathan Broadbent likewise turns repeatedly on a sixpence between Orsino and Andrew Aguecheek, and Gemma Saunders is stripped of much of the material which makes Feste the most complex fool in Shakespeare. What’s the point of introducing people to the joys of the play if what they’re offered to enjoy isn’t actually the play?

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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