If you’re seeking a play for today, look no further than Twelfth Night. And as an antidote to the trials and tribulations of the past eighteen months, Tomahawk Theatre’s sparkling production was just what the doctor ordered.
The company has made Oxford Castle its summer home for many years. Here, on a gloriously and unseasonally sunny evening, the audience was transfixed, carried along by the momentum and magnetism of this slick production. The ever more complex gender confusion at the heart of the play was conveyed with a deft lightness of direction that enabled what has become almost a defining and even divisive issue of our day to be both taken with due seriousness and yet also savoured with non-judgemental delight.
The simple set served variously as bar, garden or nobles’ villa, all leaving plenty to our imagination, and complemented by the very real backdrop of the castle itself which provided an all-too-grim portal to Malvolio’s subterranean prison. The cast used all of this to full effect, whether it was Billy Morton’s exuberant, larger-than-life Sir Toby Belch drinking from his yard of ale; or Olivia (Charlie Morgan) presiding with regal dignity yet revealing her more human side when falling for Cesario (her cries of Yet come again! and Most wonderful! were highlights of the second half). The garden scene, in which Belch and Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Chris Gladwin gave such a convincingly pitiful and plaintive performance) could barely restrain their curiosity while watching the ill-fated Malvolio discover the fake letter, was an outstanding triumph of comic timing. Here, and throughout, Hannah Nicholas as Maria was the scheming puppeteer, captivating audience and players alike with her infinitely varied facial expressions, lightning movement and irrepressible energy. She was a brilliant forerunner of the maids of Molière and Mozart.
Duke Orsino (the impressive Tobias Forbes) got proceedings off to a perfect start with the challenge of one of the many Shakespearean phrases that have become universally known: If music be the food of love, he instructed, play on. The keyboard player Nicolo Pierini, whose musical direction throughout was precise and well-judged, duly did just that, until the Captain burst in from the shipwreck with Viola (Georgie Dettmer effortlessly switching between her female and male identities). Music underpinned the mood and the action throughout, a brusque and effective example being the sudden switch to rock for Sir Toby’s opening dance with Maria, joined then by Sir Andrew.
In fact, the dances were a notable feature of this production, stylishly choreographed by Beth Burns, and incidentally helping to show off the costumes (Lynda Hart) to best effect. The lion’s share was taken by Craig Finlay as the ebullient fool Feste, who successfully carried off the difficult feat of singing intelligibly and sensitively while dancing – even harder, perhaps, in the open air. Finlay (also Antonio) was one of several actors taking on more than one role, often jumping in and out of costumes with little time to spare before reappearing as someone else. George Bugler as both Sebastian and Valentine brought a striking maturity to the roles. Was it even the Director himself, Paul Alex Nicholls, making cameo appearances as the policeman and a very senior cleric? This may be a feature of Tomahawk Theatre’s modest resources, yet the play lost nothing as a result, and on this occasion, given a plot based so fundamentally on mistaken identity, seemed to be most natural. Adam Wakely, though, was Malvolio, played with sanctimoniousness and flawed innocence. Despite his kill-joy role at the start, morphing into the cross-gartered, yellow-stockinged figure of ridicule, who could not feel sympathy for him as he was led down the actual castle steps into the dungeon?
For everyone else, the resolution of confused genders and identities made for a joyful ending – almost. Feste has just about the last word in his song The rain, it raineth every day, which he shared with Viola, and which brought this scintillating production to its bittersweet conclusion. But that’s all one, our play is done, we hear, And we’ll strive to please you every day. Job done, in spades.