Friday 24 November 2017

Urban cool for Shakespeare's Twelfth Night at the Abbey

Mark Lambert and Mark O'Halloran (Malvolio) in Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare. Directed by Wayne Jordan.
Mark Lambert and Mark O'Halloran (Malvolio) in Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare. Directed by Wayne Jordan.

Emer O'Kelly

Wayne Jordan's new production of Shakespeare's Twelfth Night for the Abbey is not so much post-modern as urban cool.

When the lights come up on Barry John O'Connor as Duke Orsino asking for music as "the food of love", he is pure rock star: long-legged, posturing, gold lamé-clad; when Olivia's steward Malvolio fusses onto stage, he is a latter-day Elvis Costello; the stage is set.

The downside of the production is that "stage" is the operative word; few characterisations display any real depth of emotion, and the action falls into a series of technical set-pieces, many of them excellent in themselves, but never harmonising into a smooth whole.

The problem would seem to be that Jordan's concentration on the cross-gender, cross-dressing double joke at the heart of the play is obsessed with its modern-day academic significance as "queer politics"; and being heavy-handed with a joke never works.

Add to that a cast which falls roughly into two halves: experienced actors of talent, style, and substance, and a (largely younger) cohort who fail fairly dismally to get to grips with Shakespearean rhythms as well as lacking presence and confidence, and you have a production which has flashes of brilliance, but never quite takes off.

The play tells the story of Viola, who was shipwrecked on the shores of Illyria. She believes her brother Sebastian has been drowned, and so assumes male dress as protection. She takes service with the Duke, who in turn is laying siege to the Lady Olivia in her self-imposed deep mourning for her dead father and brother.

She is "protected" (somewhat inadequately) by her drunken uncle Sir Toby Belch and his drinking buddy Sir Andrew Aguecheek. Of course Sebastian is not dead but living as a vagabond with his friend Antonio (in this production interpreted as his lover) and all ends somewhat questionably happily as genders get sorted out and marriages take place.

Throw in a large dose of class consciousness as Malvolio is vilely and cruelly punished for his presumption in aspiring to Olivia's hand, and you have one of Shakespeare's darker forays into comedy.

To work, it needs supreme talent. In Jordan's production we have it with a sublime double act between Nick Dunning and Mark Lambert as Sir Toby and Sir Andrew, and a devastatingly brilliant Malvolio, calculating and insanely vengeful by turns from Mark O'Halloran.

In lesser roles, Natalie Radmall-Quirke makes a firmly authoritative Olivia, with Ruth McGill as her spiteful maid Maria and Elaine Fox as a quirkily comic Valentine.

Ger Kelly seems to have been cast mainly for his singing voice as the clown Feste, but since that is rather wonderful, he gets away with a certain wooden quality of acting.

The rest are pretty forgettable, particularly Sophie Robinson's Viola. Her northern accent with its elongated vowels is inclined to play havoc with the verse rhythms, while her stage presence is far too shadowy to convey any kind of bewildered passion.

The production looks wonderful and sounds wonderful: costumes by Emma Fraser, set by Ciaran O'Melia, sound by Ben Delaney, lighting by Simon Mills, and a superb score by Tom Lane, played by Alex Petcu. But music as the food of love, at the heart of what Shakespeare wrote, becomes merely an exercise in gymnastics in this production: and sex, lust and love should be more than that.

********

GERARD Lee's A New Day at Bewley's lunchtime cafe theatre in Dublin posits a fairly unlikely situation. It also explores it in a fairly unlikely manner. And it resolves it with fairly unlikely ease. But it's just so damn well-written and has such crackling dialogue that you're sitting up begging to suspend disbelief.

Susan is asleep in the dark on her sofa, fairly well plastered out of her mind. Her flat, newly inhabited since her separation from her husband (he's gone off with his work assistant) is close to the centre of town. Enter sociology student daughter Dee who thinks it will be handier to crash there rather than wending her drunken way home to her own rather less salubrious flat.

Mother and daughter engage in one of those modern "we're equal because we're both adults now" conversations, daughter censorious of mother's drinking, mother despairing over daughter's constant grievous bodily harm to the English language.

Except, of course, that the pitchfork with which nature has been tossed out turns its prongs back: there ain't no equality when mum wants the same kind of life as that being enjoyed by daughter. The elephant is in the room; or rather in the bedroom, where Dan the sandwich board man lies peacefully asleep after a riotous post pick-up evening.

That's it: no surprises; huge charm; a lot of acute observation of modern urban life; three absolutely corking performances and sharp, taut direction. Charlotte Bradley and Kate Stanley Brennan are Susan and Dee, Anthony Brophy is Dan. Direction is by Bairbre NiChaoimh in a set by Martin Cahill, lit by Colm Maher with sound by Vincent Doherty.

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