Taking its cue from the opening lines of Shakespeare’s comedy — “If music be the food of love, play on” — musical composition and performance are at the heart of Wils Wilson’s production of Twelfth Night for the Lyceum and Bristol Old Vic. A battered grand piano is a prominent feature of Ana Inés Jabares-Pita’s country-house set and several of the performers double as musicians, including Meilyr Jones, the Welsh singer-songwriter and the composer for the show.
Jones’s arrangements for some of Shakespeare’s most celebrated songs, includingCome away, come away, death andWhen that I was and a little tiny boy, are the unquestionable highlights of the three-hour performance, layering a range of instruments with the musician’s lovely tenor voice to effect a hazy, dreamy quality that is truly show-stopping, albeit in a quiet, reflective way.
Pic: Mihaela Bodlovic
Although Jones and his fellow instrumentalists, including Aly Macrae, the musical director, are present on stage throughout, picking up minor roles at points, the musical passages generally take the form of interludes rather than blending seamlessly with the action. Wilson has chosen to set the play in a gaudy swirl of late-Sixties psychedelia, kaftans, flares and afro wigs, which at times clashes horribly with Jones’s cosmic, yet gentle, melancholic sound.
The period setting is a good fit for the Bard’s comedy of cross-dressing and elaborate pranks in that the action takes place in a ready-made atmosphere of blurred gender lines and blissed-out behaviour. There are nods in Jabares-Pita’s designs to outfits worn by the likes of Elton John and Jimi Hendrix.
Pic: Mihaela Bodlovic
Despite the strong, clear concept, with its echoes of hallucinatory rock operas such as Hair or Tommy, there is something incoherent about the production. It is not unusual for the festive element to be foregrounded in Twelfth Night, but here the romantic plotlines are overwhelmed by the comic set pieces. For a show with music at its heart, some of the performances feel oddly stiff and contained: it is, we discover, very hard to move freely in huge platform boots.
While Christopher Green is very funny as Malvolio, at one point showing off his booty in a yellow PVC cat suit, his scenes feel out of kilter, too, as though they have sashayed in from a fringe revue. The subversive party atmosphere Wilson and her ensemble strive to create entertains in snatches, but it is also drawn-out and increasingly infuriating.