“If music be the food of love then play on”
It may be music that feeds love according to Shakespeare but it is lust that drives Arrow and Traps’ interesting production of Twelfth Night, playing in rep with Othello at the Upstairs at the Gatehouse Theatre in Highgate. Sebastian and Antonio have been shagging for three months, Feste is pining for Maria, Olivia’s loins are thrustingly on fire for Cesario, Orsino and Cesario all but do it on the bed and on the floor – what country friends is this? Well it’s a most libidinous Illyria.
Ross McGregor’s production thus puts sex firmly on the table, a bold move and one which pays off in the first half, upping the stakes in familiar relationships and teasing insights into lesser explored ones. So whilst it is no surprise that Olivia and Orsino want to get laid, it’s good to see it acknowledged so explicitly for once. But it’s also intriguing to see the depth of Malvolio’s feelings for Olivia as shown here and to consider the dynamics of a homosexual relationship between Sebastian and Antonio.
The depth of this interrogation of the text doesn’t quite follow through into the second act though, as the production fits into the contours of Shakespeare’s plotting in the smartly designed tripartite set design. Thus Alex Stevens’ Sebastian (and indeed Spencer Lee Osborne’s Antonio, hell, pretty much the entire cast) are revealed as sexually fluid, which ducks some of the trickier questions about sexual identity that were being toyed with earlier.
It is an appealingly performed Twelfth Night though. Cornelia Baumann’s Olivia is vividly done and captivatingly spoken, Pippa Caddick’s Viola an intelligently playful interpretation who finds real pathos in a beautifully staged reunion scene and whether through necessity in cross-casting or design, Adam Elliott’s casting as Malvolio is inspired. A younger, funnier (the letter scene is brilliant), and dare I say it sexier take on the role, it’s thus less of a stretch to imagine he’d think he’d have a chance with Olivia and more tragic when he’s taken down.
As with previous Arrows and Traps performances I’ve seen, music plays a big role and here, it is Lloyd Warbey’s mournful pierrot of a Feste who takes centre stage. Whether serenading Orsino with Alanis Morissette’s ‘Simple Together’, delivering melancholy versions of Proclaimers and Queen classics, or leading a clever mash-up of Sleeping At Last’s ‘Tethered’ with ‘The Rain It Raineth Every Day” to close the show, Pascal Magdinier’s arrangements are an atmospheric way to bring a contemporary edge to the production, even as it is played in traditional costume.