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Twelfth Night - 2017

 Review by Lucy Daniel Raby

The last time I saw this play at Polesden Lacey, it was a stormy summer night and the heavens opened. The Dads in our party erected shelters from tarpaulins, and the kids thought it the best fun ever; never mind the Shakespeare.  It was hard to hear the actors’ voices over the thunder, but everyone soldiered on.

This time could not have been more different. It was a stunning blue-sky day and the sun blazed down on us all. Watching open air Shakespeare in the gorgeous surroundings of Polesden Lacey is always a pleasure, but especially so when performed by the current Polesden Lacey Shakespeare team.

Twelfth Night is possibly one of my favourite Shakespeare plays, a classic comedy dealing with love, loss, romance, mistaken identity, cross dressing, puritanism, separated siblings and repressed desire.

The stage set suggested a Summer Garden, with cleverly designed staircases and balconies for the cast to move around in whilst ducking and diving, eavesdropping and generally causing mischief. There was also a bridge and semi circular cordoned off area reminiscent of the Shakespearean apron stage, enabling the cast to come amongst the audience from time to time, making the whole production more accessible.

Perdix , the live period musicians, set the scene and maintained the theme of ‘music being the food of love’ throughout.

Setting the play in the time of Charles 1st made a refreshing change from the traditional Elizabethan style, and brought with it a flavour of the puritanism that was on the rise at the time. The costume design worked particularly well with Malvolio’s character, a conflicted, frustrated prig with secret romantic aspirations.

Talking of characters, there were some excellent nuanced performances from all. We recognise these timeless archetypes in our everyday lives; the pompous social climber, the slack fibred drunkard, the gullible fool, the confused young people with no self-knowledge – all of life was there.

Sir Toby Belch, played by Matt Henry, was a convincing drunk who sobered up enough throughout the play for us to make us think he deserved the favours of Maria, played with an infectious naughtiness by Joy Tinniswood. Sophie O’Shea’s Viola did justice to the androgynous complexity of the part and made a convincing young man and woman. When Feste sang a sad song, her tears at the loss of her brother were genuinely moving.

Stuart Finlayson’s rendition of Feste was excellent and very original, and he came across as the wisest and smartest character of all. Stuart has a lot of comedy in him, but he can also deliver a nuanced performance and his songs were beautifully done. Lisa Ray made a beautiful and gracious Olivia, lovelorn and confused, somewhat haughty, but always sympathetic.

And Malvolio’s interpretation was one of the best I’ve seen. I have always laughed at his character, and Gary Andrews’ performance was hilarious, but I have never felt sorry for him before. In the final scene, the pathos came across loud and clear; the sight of Malvolio in his nightshirt, a broken man after discovering how he had been humiliated and ridiculed, again nearly brought tears to my eyes. How many of us have experienced this long ago in the school playground? Or in our nightmares, or paranoid imaginings?

Shakespeare says it all and shows it all. I was once again reminded of how he balances the polarities of life; darkness and light, sadness and comedy, love and hate.  Despite the broad comedy, sophisticated wit and farce, there is a thread of sadness pulsing through the play, and this excellent production really brought it home to us.

Shakespeare at Polesden Lacey is one of the greatest pleasures of Summer in the South, and I look forward to more in the future.

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