Twelfth night is a time of chaos, mess and topsy-turvy. So Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night should be similarly carnivalesque, a play particularly unsuited for the historically anomalous approach of on-script, stony faced adaptation. Bristol Old Vic Theatre School’s production is wonderfully irreverent, a lit-up Ferris wheel of a show, blowing sea-air from the Illyria holiday resort through the theatre, and allowing everyone to bask in the sunny Shakespearean panorama.
This Twelfth Night is a knock-about interpretation – favouring Sir Toby and Feste’s foolery over the romantic plots of the traditional leads. Its language is a hot-pot mixture of Shakespeare, new writing and the odd ad-lib, often using the first for exposition, the second for joyous disruption and the third to keep things spontaneous and inclusive. The production knows that Shakespeare is easy if no one makes it difficult, if it chats to the audience instead of talking over them.
The Theatre School include contemporary songs – ‘My Old Man’s a Dustman’, ‘I Do Like to Be Beside the Seaside’, ditties sold on whistle and ukulele – and some famous snippets from Shakespeare outside the play. It’s not a gimmick. It restores an infidelity to script lost in our modern attitude to Shakespeare and, like The Globe in London, some of the carnival, some of the showmanship of the renaissance. In doing so it makes it more accessible, more fun and – importantly – shows that Twelfth Night, and Shakespeare in general, can be a space to play rather than struggle.
The slapstick of the Malvolio plot is remarkably precise, choreographed and performed with an infectious, dazzling pace. It’s lively stuff and rewards the multi-rolling of Martin Bassindale – playing both head disciplinarian Malvolio and desperate duke Orsino – to great effect. But it’s a problematic strand to focus on so heavily, its revelry endorsing the bullying of Malvolio, who the other ‘low’ characters gang up on and humiliate. It isn’t quite deft enough to inject the emotional complexity that would have appeased the pedagogical demands of children’s theatre.
But it’s a small price to pay and some of the play’s funniest moments are found in questioning the strains of the Shakespearean plot. ‘Why was I in the sea so much longer than everyone else?’, asks long lost Sebastian when he arrives in Illyria from the shipwreck. It’s an apt line in a production that questions rather than answers, plays rather than preaches, and offers all the fun of candy-floss, donkey rides and dodgems on a seaside pier.