WHEN you think of Twelfth Night as a comedy, you probably picture the impish Maria making a fool of the self-serving Puritan steward Malvolio, of cowardly Sir Andrew trying (not) to fight a duel with Cesario/Viola.
Olivia is the black figure of mourning in the back of the action – the wealthy young woman, still grieving for her brother and her father, and repelling all advances from her would-be suitor Count Orsino (elegant Dave Milas). It’s a jolly hard part to pull off, because this noble virgin (think Elizabeth I) falls helplessly in love at first sight of Orsino’s handsome young page. Her eager pursuit of Cesario pretty much dispels the image of secluded virtue.
So the really innovative aspect of Michael Whitaker’s production for the new Commandery Players of this great play is not the music of Erik Satie (more on that later) but on recasting Olivia as a woman who is frankly panting for it. The first time Elizabeth Coyle Camp’s wickedly witty Olivia spots Charlie Greenwood’s winsome Cesario, it’s not just love but lust at first sight.
And later in the play, when she sees double – Cesario/Viola and her twin Sebastian (Lucy Castle, pictured in rehearsal), for just a brief second the prospect of doubling the pleasure flutters across her expressive face. It is a laugh-out-loud moment in a thoroughly well-thought-out performance.
Olivia may be the unexpected comic turn of this production, but the audience is well-served by the more familiar comedy – the trio of quick-witted Maria (Shirley Banas), boisterous Sir Toby Belch (first rate Jack Roper) and Sir Andrew Aguecheek (a marvellously physical performance by Christian Allsopp) are hilarious – and Steve Whittingham‘s Malvolio is achingly funny (although I think a few men in the audience winced with him when he pinged the cross-garters!). He is pompous, priggish, arrogant, self-centred, narcissistic … (is there a pattern emerging? No, he hasn’t got apricot hair).
Alongside a new-look Olivia, there is a much stronger Feste than in some productions – Dan Evans, blessed with a lovely singing voice, makes the most of this wise, drily witty old retainer. He had to sing all three of his songs to Satie’s Gymnopedies and all credit to him – it must have been very difficult.
Satie’s music, says the director, “perfectly reflects the febrile intensity of the separate households … balanced by a wistful melancholia.” That is true, but Satie’s music is a bit of an acquired taste – so, rather like Thelonius Monk or some Bach, if you love it, you probably get all the tiny exquisite nuances. If it’s not your thing, it can be a bit repetitive. It was an interesting idea – I like Satie, but I didn’t think it really worked here.
That’s a small matter – overall this was a terrific production, well acted, and if they can speed up (or even do without) the slow “scene changes” of moving champagne bottles on and off the bar (which doubles as the box hedge for the gulling of Malvolio), it will be even better.
Performances continue at The Commandery at Ansty near Tisbury until Saturday 14th July.