In the programme to this inventive production of Twelfth Night, director David Thacker does a quick bit of mental arithmetic. Incredibly, this is his 29th Shakespeare production, and his fourth at the Octagon since taking over as Artistic Director in 2009. Carving something of a reputation for an accessible approach to The Bard, Thacker transposes Illyria to a Downton Abbey-style country house in Lancashire, with the havoc caused ‘downstairs’ by Sir Toby Belch an enjoyable counterpoint to the more refined and melancholy farce of mistaken identity played out in the drawing room of aristocrat Olivia.
While Ian Blower lends Sir Toby Belch a suitably riotous air and Jessica Baglow imbues kitchen maid Maria with no nonsense Lancashire wit, it’s Christopher Villiers’ Malvolio who is at the heart of this production. To continue the Downton analogy, he is the Carson of the piece, cruelly tricked by Belch, Maria et al into falling for Olivia (a lovelorn Natalie Grady). It’s not particularly usual for Twelfth Night audiences to be asked to feel so much sympathy for Malvolio, but Villiers makes him intriguingly human.
In fact, these shenanigans pleasingly overshadow the slightly predictable mistaken identity plot: Olivia falls for Duke Orsino’s page, not realising that it’s actually Viola (played with unfussy charm by Rosie Jones) disguised as her long lost brother. Who then, naturally, turns up.
Happily, Thacker diverts attention away from the inevitabilities of the plot with a pacey production in which the vast majority of the cast remain on stage – Michael Shelford plays Orsino at the piano, accompanying the early action like a melodramatic silent movie. Maxwell Hutcheon (pictured), meanwhile, channels George Formby in his heavily accented jesting.
“If music be the food of love, play on”, indeed, never sounded so apt.