Edward Hall's all-male Propeller company opens the Old Vic's 2007 season with a double-bill of Shakespeare's explorations into love. While the matinee saw The Taming Of The Shrew, which was originally presented at the RSC Complete Works Festival in Stratford, take a London bow, the evening was saved for a new production of Twelfth Night featuring the same cast. Matthew Amer was at the press night.
The love-struck Duke Orsino opens Shakespeare's Twelfth Night with the famous line, "If music be the food of love, play on", and the cast do. Propeller's multi-talented all-male band, when they are not in character, becomes a masked chorus, ever watchful of the scenes playing out before them. They move scenery, lean round corners and provide atmospheric music using regular instruments along with more exotic Tibetan bowls and bottles.
Their appearance on stage, seemingly conducted by Tony Bell's deadpan but wild-eyed Feste, who remains unmasked, provides an eerie, fairytale flavour, and it feels that we, like they, are watching and affecting something private. The fool Feste has the beating of everyone with his wit, but his ever-seeing presence suggests some greater purpose.
The main plot of Twelfth Night comes in the love triangle between Orsino, Olivia and Orsino's servant Cesario, who is, in actual fact, the shipwrecked Viola in disguise as a boy. In this particular production, Tam Williams, who plays Cesario/Viola, is a boy pretending to be a girl pretending to be a boy, which throws up all manner of questions regarding love.
Dugald Bruce-Lockhart, who earlier in the day was a brutish Petruchio, is here a vain, flippant, flighty and flirtatious, if not rather broad-shouldered, Olivia. Jack Tarlton's Orsino, tortured by his unrequited love for Olivia, provides an echo of The Taming Of The Shrew, supplicating himself to Viola when he realises the lengths she has gone to for him, in an inversion of Katherine's submission to Petruchio.
Much of the play's comedy comes from the sub-plot which features Olivia's pompous steward Malvolio being deceived into believing his mistress is in love with him. Bob Barrett plays the enamoured servant as a kind of camp biker, and garners one of the largest laughs of the evening with his arrival in a very special outfit. His assailants –
Jason Baughan's Toby Belch, Simon Scardifield's Andrew Aguecheek and Bell's Feste – delight in physical clowning as they go about their, often drunk, business, though the baby-faced Scardifield has a lingering humanising hint of sadness. The whole company revels in the set-piece letter scene that features moving bushes, comedy statues and helpful animal noises.
As The Taming Of The Shrew is Shakespeare's early attempt at tackling love, so Twelfth Night is more mature, rounded and less controversial, yet the viciousness with which Malvolio is treated harks back to his earlier work and is uncomfortable to watch.