Thursday, October 07, 2004

REVIEW: Twelfth Night, The Olympia

Cheek by Jowl’s Declan Donnellan takes on a double challenge in his all male, all Russian cast for Twelfth Night. Working mainly with graduates of the Moscow Arts Theatre School and Russian Theatre Academy, he sets about what might be called an “un-deconstruction” of Shakespeare’s tale by casting men for both male and female roles, reviving some of the original spin to a romcom in which cross-dressing is so crucially woven into the plot.

To keep this complex operation airborn and bring a contemporary audience into The Kingdom of Illyria’s teetering, polymorhous world of sexual misdirection requires Donnellan’s theatre mojo to be working at full power. If the director finally suceeds in the tricky task he has set himself, his creation is in patches more impressive than enjoyable.

Donnellan’s production is spare, but always elegant. The design by Cheek By Jowl co-founder, Nick Omerrod, evacuates the stage as much as possible, bringing on a chunky chair or table, or cabdle or two, only when absolutely necessary.

Scenery is then created with towering bolts of fabric (black at first, creamy coloured with light-stencilled leaves and branches later on) dropped from the rafters . This simple plan, lit gently and unfussily but with a range of enticing details by Judith Greenwood, provides Donnellan and his actors with what they clearly crave: plenty of naked white stage in which to work.

Onto this Donnellan marches a large latin wedding band of cast, their sweet bossas turning the play’s songs from the excruciating digressions they often are, into entirely delightful musical interludes. Who would ever have bet that the mix of russian translations of Shakespearean lyrics sung to a swaying Brazillian beats would produce such a joyful mashup.

While music had the power to overcome the language barrier in the songs, the rest of the play had to rely on green LED surtitles. This seemed to result in the Russian speakers scattered around the Olympia audience heartily enjoying some gags that were simply not available to the anglophones present. So, while reading the surtitles was not a complete bar to enjoying the show, there was a sense of receiving, at times, the narrowband version of the message.

But all of this fortuoutously serves to throw the attention back towards the visual aspects of Donnellan’s creation: the throughly, whole-body physical styles of the Russia actors’ work, as well as the way smooth, dynamic way the director continually diced and reconstituted the stage.

When the production finally finds its groove, it is actually as free and funky a version of the piece as anyone could hope. The slapstick becomes beautifically balletic, the potty gender-trading louche and hillarious, the anachronisms sharp, spare and well-marshalled.

One moment the cast are involved in a cluster brawl that seems to reference the hammy bouts of the WWE, the next an onstage microphone adds a deeply spooky reverb to Malvolio’s prison torture scene.

Donnellan’s approach happily negotiates old and new, antique and contemporary resonances, to give a sensation of an uncompromsing, pure Twelfth night, without forgetting to remind us those Shakespearean puzzels we not yet unravelled.

Olympia Theatre, Dublin, 7 October, 2004



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