A double opening at the Open Air Theatre this week, starting with the tragedy of the star-crossed lovers in 'Romeo and Juliet', and switching gear with the comedic delight of 'Twelfth Night' at the end of it. The English weather, which started off in blazing sunshine and almost blistering heat on Monday, switched gear too, so that come the revels of 'Twelfth Night', we were all shivering under blankets and any item that provided some warmth, as well as sipping mulled wine to protect against the chill. There are worse things in life!
But the poor weather couldn't dampen the spirits of the substantial end-of-the-week crowd who readily warmed to the considerable humour provided by the inventive direction of Edward Dick, and a cast in particularly good form.
'Twelfth Night' has a number of Shakespeare's favourite themes: twins, the sea, shipwreck, mistaken identity and love among them. And it's a play with a plot that's pretty easy to follow, even if it's somewhat contrived. For example, when Viola is washed ashore after being shipwrecked, she decides to disguise herself as a man for no apparent purpose. Or at least, none that seems reasonable to me given the circumstances. Still, if she didn't take that course, the play wouldn't have the same sense of fun, or provide the actors with a huge number of opportunities to make the audience laugh. And here, none of those opportunities have been missed.
The basic set we saw on Monday for 'Romeo and Juliet' looks like it's going to be the backdrop for the rest of the season. That's hardly surprising since it's very substantial - a faded brick house with a huge entrance and dilapidated louvre windows - it might be difficult to dismantle overnight. It's nonetheless a background which fits well with the two plays we saw this week, suggesting the old while the actors sport the modern in terms of their costumes, once again well designed by Fotini Dimou.
The basic style for 'Twelfth Night' – in opposition in a way to the set - is the 1920s. The costumes boast double-breasted suits, and the music is the brass-dominated kind of the 'roaring 20s'. And there's a considerable amount of music as well a singing throughout the play.
The star of this version of 'Twelfth Night' is Feste, the fool. However, that's not always the case. I've seen plenty of fools who were, frankly, rather tedious and even boring. But Clive Rowe is a fool with a difference, and a trunk! A large suitcase that doubles-up as a bar and his wardrobe, and which he trundles around with him almost wherever he goes. But it's his size and his singing, as well as his outlandish hairstyle that makes the fool very funny, and hugely appealing. Shakespeare made Feste a little odd, the kind of person that on the one hand is a money grabber and a tormentor, and on the other hand something of a saviour when he delivers Malvolio's pleading letter to Olivia. I don't think Rowe actually managed to resolve that dichotomy satisfactorily, focusing more on the humour, but it didn't spoil his very enjoyable performance one jot.
Clive Rowe has an excellent singing voice, and it's used to great effect and highlighted with inventive use of a follow spot, and even a mirror ball! And his hairstyle alone is sufficient to make anyone laugh. It's a little obvious, perhaps, but in this play you can easily take some risks, and they all paid off here.
Janie Dee's Olivia is a woman with smouldering passion as she demonstrates when making her exits, slinking around the backdrop and throwing longing looks at Cesario. Dee's Olivia sees romance and passion in almost every word that Cesario utters, however trite or banale.
Richard O'Callaghan's Malvolio is the epitomy of order and ritual, that is until he discovers Maria's letter which he thinks is from Olivia. And O'Callaghan makes the transition from authoritarian domestic to obsessed lover with high ambitions appear effortless, and his final exit – swearing vengeance on those who have tormented him – was very sad, even if it was hard to resist a snigger.
Edward Dick manages to get in some rather cheeky rugby songs – 'Four and twenty virgins', for example – which purists might not like, but certainly seemed to fit given the debauched character of Sir Toby Belch and his drunken followers. Belch is played with restraint by Tim Woodward perhaps because Clive Hayward's Aguecheek is so ridiculously childish (intentionally so, of course). It's a well-constructed combination, because Sir Toby here is an intelligent man who prefers to enjoy himself drinking and womanising rather than take his place as a respected member of the gentry. But Woodward's Belch is no fool.
Edward Dick has taken a hint from the Globe's method of doing Shakespeare, and ends the show with a dance. Here it's the ballroom variety, rather than Jacobean, but it certainly adds to the charm of the production especially with flickering candles lighting up the dance floor.
Comparisons always seem unfair, even if they are unavoidable. Of the two shows this week, I think that 'Twelfth Night' came out on top, thanks to Clive Rowe's performance in particular, but the whole cast of 'Twelfth Night' seemed more consistently in tune with each other as well as the play itself. Having said that, it's been a terrific opening week for the new Artistic Director at the Open Air Theatre, Timothy Sheader, who's certainly stamped an impressive mark on the venue with two excellent productions, showing that we can expect great things in the future.
What the popular press had to say.....
FIONA MOUNTFORD for THE EVENING STANDARD says, "For too long in this, Shakespeare's most sophisticated comedy, it looks as though the fairy lights in Regent's Park are on but no one's home." LYN GARDNER for THE GUARDIAN says, "Dick's production is clear, unfussy, has a pleasing fluidity and often places the actors to draw attention to the emotional space between them...Although this may not be a classic production, it is an intelligent one." JEREMY KINGSTON for THE TIMES says, "Intensely enjoyable production." CHARLES SPENCER for THE DAILY TELEGRAPH says, "Unfortunately the director Edward Dick has failed to bring out all its riches... Particularly in the first half, many of the performances in this elegantly dressed jazz-age production seem to lack both purpose and pep."