Now this is an intriguing theatrical prospect. The Shakespeare Globe returns to the Bodleian this summer with an experiment. An act of democracy to shake up the Bard, to give this production an element of unpredictability. The company that has taken up residence hands over the choice of production to us, the audience. Our evening begins with a vote, choosing from three of Shakespeare's more famous comedies: The Merchant of Venice, The Taming of the Shrew, or Twelfth Night. The winner will be the one that inspires the loudest roar of approval from the packed audience.
Twelfth Night won the vote. I'd like to say that my pick, The Taming of the Shrew, came close, but the ever-popular comedy won over the more prickly and difficult choices handsomely. Our play for the evening contains shipwrecked twins and cross-dressing in the courts: a very quintessential Shakespearean comedy. But I can't begrudge it winning on the day when the ensemble makes such fabulous work of it all.
The set is a bare scaffold structure with weather-beaten wood. Props are few and far between and the costumes are transferable jackets and capes that go over the actors' overalls. The acoustics of Old Schools Quadrangle are spectacular, and not a single word is lost by the exemplary performers. Everything is kept to a minimum, one assumes to accommodate the uncertainty of play to be performed. This is refined Shakespeare, a near pure dose that is perfect for any addict of the Bard.
The ensemble of eight work well as a collective, taking on multiple roles and providing the music for the show. This feels a far more melancholic production, engaging on an emotional level which I was not expecting. Much of the tone of a production of Twelfth Night is set by Luke Brady's more subdued, detached Feste who gives the whole production a sober quality. On the other hand, Sarah Finigan steals every scene she is in as Sir Andrew Aguecheek, bringing a sweetness that wins the audience firmly over to her side. Also standing out are the scenes between Viola and Duke Orsino, managing to be affecting in a way I haven't seen before. Steffan Cennydd (Viola) and Rhianna McGreevy (Orsino) have such a clear chemistry together, with McGreevy even managing to sidestep some of Orsino's problematic views on women.
One of the most fascinating conflicts currently taking place in British theatre is the modernity vs. traditional debate at the Shakespeare Globe. This saw the supremely talented Emma Rice exit as artistic director after just two seasons. Her crime seemed to be a proliferation of the use of technical elements such as artificial light and recorded music. One could talk endlessly of the wisdom of removing one of the shining lights of the theatre scene in a rather unceremonious fashion. But what hasn't been lost is the company's ability to marshal compelling Shakespeare that smacks of an authenticity that can sometimes be lost with other, more technically advanced interpretations.
It is brave to hand the final decision of the play you perform to a raucous group of Shakespeare fans. If there is one thing that we have learnt in the past few years, it's that democracy can have painful results. But on this evening we were treated to a thoroughly enjoyable, compelling and emotionally engaging Twelfth Night. I'd be curious to see the numbers at the end of the run, as I suspect this play may prove the more popular choice. This is such a fun evening that I may have to go again, to try my luck and win the prize of the prickly The Taming of the Shrew.