First published in The Times, Thursday June 30 2016
While cross-dressing is central to the plot and resolution of a number of Shakespeare’s comedies, Twelfth Night occupies its own league as a comment on gender construction and elastic sexuality. The female protagonist spends most of the play dressed as a pageboy, inadvertently stirring the passions of a woman who has forsworn all male suitors while simultaneously harbouring a secret love for a nobleman. Talk about progressive.
Jennifer Dick’s enjoyable production, which raises the curtain on this year’s Bard in the Botanics season of outdoor theatre, adds further layers of complication to Shakespeare’s examination of gender, sexuality and identity. While male actors Robert Elkin and Ryan Ferrie play both the central female characters, Viola and Olivia (which would of course have been de rigueur in the Bard’s day) the male leads, Sebastian and Orsino, are performed by women (Samantha McLaughlin and Emilie Patry respectively).
Pic: Tommy Ga-Ken Wan
In a play in which all of the characters are, to varying degrees, revealed to be not quite what they seem, Dick’s decision to take non-traditional casting up a notch comes to make perfect sense, not least because the four romantic leads sensibly resist slipping into caricature. The cultural revolution of the Sixties, which gave rise to a questioning of all gender roles, makes for an apposite period setting: Carys Hobbs’s costume design is heavy on lime green and mustard, Beatle wigs, Mary Quant wedge bobs and mini-dresses.
Dick’s production, performed on a small stage at the back of the glasshouses rather than in promenade, is at its best when it sticks to the fundamentals. The conceit of having the actors lip-synch along to pop standards by the Kinks, the Zombies, Cilla and others, at first diverting, proves repetitive and rather wearying. The reprise of Dedicated Follower of Fashion provides an opportunity for a loo break and the reapplication of midgie repellent.
Pic: Tommy Ga-Ken Wan
With such a surfeit of song and dance interludes, the piece feels a little erratic, with some memorable moments compensating for the overall patchiness. The scene in which Elkin as Viola in the guise of Cesario dances with Patry’s Orsino to the strains of Maureen Evans’s Till is very moving while Adam Donaldson delivers a well-rounded and eventually poignant portrayal of Malvolio’s slide from puffed up self-importance to utterly broken cuckold at the hands of bullying knights Toby Belch (Kirk Bage) and Andrew Aguecheek (William Foote). As the light fades, the shadows lengthen onstage and the plot threads come together, Dick and her ensemble increasingly strike the right balance between such seriousness and the play’s more farcical elements.
Box office: 0141 429 0022, to July 9. Bardinthebotanics.co.uk