Everything in Twelfth Night is about contrast—between love and despair, between companionship and isolation, between comedy and tragedy, and between genders. Despite the light-hearted nature of many scenes, the play explores several weighty issues, which require a certain subtlety of performance if they are to successfully come across. The Drama Centre London’s final year students’ performance at the Cochrane Theatre is pleasantly surprising. Walking in, the set is simple, yet striking, with the actors already on stage assuming their parts. This tactic effectively serves to create the feeling that the audience is walking in on something real, already in existence, and not awaiting any curtains or cues. A sloping path up stage adds another dimension for the actors’ exits and entrances.
The integration of video footage and image projection allows for swift and seamless scene changes and prove most effective during the shipwreck and seaside scenes. Despite this, the quick shift from Orsino’s court to Viola washing up on the Illyrian shore is somewhat ineffective. The staging does facilitate quick scene changes, but timing must be perfect in order to illusively change the atmosphere on stage. Viola (Lindiwe Hasa) enters through the audience and bursts onstage with some impact, not at all suitable for a sister who just lost her twin brother at sea.
Emily Brown has an instant presence on stage, fitting snugly into her role from the outset. Flirtation between Brown and Sir Toby Belch (Luke Allen-Gale) is established very early on, creating a deliciously outgoing and unabashed Maria. Allen Gale takes some time to successfully gain the nuances and appearance of an older bloke, but by the end of his initial scene, the mannerisms of a portly middle-aged drunkard seem to come more naturally. As the play progresses, Allen-Gale becomes a wonderfully warm and comedic focus, dominating the stage each time he appears. Alex Felton as Sir Andrew Aguecheek delivers a stellar performance. He and Sir Toby share a fantastically jovial and immature friendship that welds the play together. There is also, however, something exceptional about Felton’s performance in its own right. Every time he walks on stage, the audience is compelled to laugh and is captivated by his playful eccentricity. Felton portrays Sir Andrew as a loveable character, although clearly a little foolish. We do not laugh to ridicule him because his idiosyncratic behaviour is endearing—a difficult emotion to draw from an audience.
The trouble with such performances is they can overpower those that require an altogether more subtle, but equally challenging character portrayal. Orsino is one of Shakespeare’s most languishing, exasperating characters. He enjoys dwelling melodramatically in the torments and trials of love more than on the object that he claims to desire, and yet this doesn’t quite materialise at any point in this performance. I was hoping for heated outbursts, anguished poses, erratic movements and over-expressive stances of despair, but no such actions manifest themselves in Howard Charles’ portrayal of Duke Orsino. A slightly less static performance would have allowed the outbursts of “so strong a passion as love doth give my heart” to burst forth and spill onto the stage.
Thomas Futerill as Feste gives a strong performance, offering his portrayal of a wise, yet isolated man. Although his wit shines through in his lines, a less obvious approach with his word-play would perhaps offer the necessary subtlety of the Fool’s wisdom and intelligence. Malvolio (Jack Fairweather) offers a promising performance that blossoms as the play progresses. Very much part of the staff and in the background initially, he slowly emerges, arrogant in every way, and crowns it all with his exuberant yellow cross-gartered stockings, a scene in which Fairweather shines.
Antonio (Tom Cornish) gives a solid, eloquent performance, each line beautifully and carefully delivered. The only slight misgiving with his character is his costume, which seems out of place with the loosely 1920’s style that dominates the costume design. Olivia (Roxanne Stutchbury), like Orsino, sadly does not convince that she feels anything like love for Cesario. She does, however, offer a fair interpretation of Olivia’s vague disdain and lack of interest for everything else.
As he does, with reasonable success, throughout various other points in the play, Feste brings the performance to a close with a song, accompanied by the splattering sound of raindrops. The audio-visual effects work well and Feste’s singing provides a suitably atmospheric ending. In a performance with student actors about to embark on their careers on the stage, one can not demand too much from the fledgling cast, and yet many performers show remarkable talent and potential as the up and coming theatrical faces of the future.