For those not familiar with this Shakespearian classic, it opens with a shipwreck which leaves a brother and sister stranded on the coast of an island called Illyria. Viola, the lead, disguises herself as a boy. Ring any bells now?
Fantastically performed by the Festival Shakespeare Company, the auditorium is outdoors in St Ann’s Well Gardens in Hove, and the audience are dotted on picnic blankets as the cast perform around them. The play centres around mistaken identity, one of Shakespeare’s favoured comic devices, and this conceit is performed brilliantly. For example, the sequence in which Cesario is continually confused for his sister is so well staged the audience can witness his confusion and anger increasing to the point of a silent fight with the absurd Sir Andrew Aguecheek.
The cast is particularly impressive – almost none of the over-acting that Shakespearean casts so often revel in. Feste, Olivia’s jester, deserves particular praise. He acts superbly, making the ever-important fool seem like an intriguing and cunning character. Olivia’s role was also played excellently. On the whole she seemed serious and austere but the actress managed to weave in subtle gestures of irony. The eccentric Sir Toby Belch was played with complete originality. His drunkenness takes on a savageness and insanity which is almost a little haunting because of the wild eyes and quasi-vomits that puncture his speech.
The opening lines of the play – ‘If music be the food of love…’ (you know the rest I’m sure) introduce the importance of song in the play. The musical sections of the performance are perhaps some of its finest moment. There are some very capable musicians and the singing, particularly Aguecheek’s, is superb. The song performed as part of the sub-plot, by the riotous drunks, had me swaying and smiling, and is particularly effective because of the audience lay-out; the performance literally takes place all around you.
The setting is also used by the cast to furnish the scene with background action. You can often see the countess strolling with her steward or the drunken squadron reeking havoc, just five feet away. This makes for a uniquely textured visual performance. During the second half, as the sun sets, the lighting is very effective – brightening the faces of some of the cast and leaving the others in ominous shadow. The outdoor-at-night setting, with picnic food and a bottle of wine sitting beside you, makes for a great atmosphere and an exhilarating experience. This is a play well worth seeing, come drizzle or clear skies. The acting is impressive, the performance funny, the setting well exploited. A performance to feast your eyes, ears and mouth upon.