Wayne Jordan’s take on Shakespeare’s play of overflowing desire is like nothing I have seen at the Abbey before. Dispensing with elaborate sets, Jordan trusted the language to fill the stage, by creating a simple wooden platform where the actors could talk to the audience, to use Bridget Escolme’s resonant phrase. And talk to the audience they did – when the actors were alone onstage, they had dialogues, not monologues. The set was stripped right back to the brickwork, where letters spelled out the play’s subtitle of ‘What You Will’ with an inverted question mark that spoke to the inversions to come.
Taking its cue from the famed opening line – ‘If music be the food of love’ – the set was dominated by giant speakers for much of the action, which were pushed around, writhed on, and hidden behind (in the gulling of Malvolio) to great effect. What emanated from them were the dirty dark pulses of electric love, counterbalanced perfectly by the marimba, vibraphone and cimbalom skills of Alex Pectu throughout, thanks to Tom Lane’s superb music design (some of which can be found here). A special mention must also go to Ger Kelly’s Feste, whose voice filled the auditorium with strains that really did have ‘a dying fall’. This was particularly effective in the drinking scenes, where The Prodigy’s ‘Firestarter’ was given the barbershop treatment. Nick Dunning’s Sir Toby almost looked to be a hair’s breadth from alcoholism.
Unafraid of anachronism, the show made a 400 year old play relevant with the subtlest of touches, whether in Feste’s arrival with ‘carry out’ cans in blue plastic bags, or Duke Orsino’s iPod headphones worn with a cloak. I think it’s fair to say that the dominant aesthetic in a word was ‘hipster’, and this sat well with the incessant self-display of Shakespeare’s characters, deeply ironic but also tinged with neediness. Natalie Radmall-Quirke was impeccable as an Olivia who doesn’t know what she wants, while a moustachioed Orsino was so full of self-love that it was hard to believe there would be any left for Viola.
The madhouse of Malvolio (Mark O’Halloran) was a personal highlight, as he is rolled out in a floor-lit glass case, with Feste donning soutane and thick Irish accent for Sir Topas the curate. Some clarity was lost with Feste’s use of a full mask, but the visual image created was striking. Malvolio’s missive to his mistress was shown to be one of a string of letters liable to be misplaced or misread (much like Maria’s earlier C’s, U’s and T’s). His bedraggled appearance by this stage – in a full yellow morph suit – gave us a steward that we empathised with more than pitied.
A strength of this production was the fact that even the most minor characters, like Elaine Fox’s Valentine, were caught up in the same nets of desire as their superiors. Antonio and Sebastian’s subtextual relationship was made clear, as they are dragged to the centre of a stage on a mattress asleep in each other’s arms. Meanwhile in the house of Olivia, her woman Maria (Ruth McGill) flits between Sir Toby and Sir Andrew with ease and grace. Glances darted constantly , especially in the final scene whether between the traditional couples, or new, potential pairings: Orsino and Antonio, Maria and Sir Andrew, Sebastian and Viola.
As a coda to the supposed resolution of Shakespeare’s play, the show finished with a beautifully balletic movement piece with the characters in their underwear, twisting, lifting and embracing one another, making explicit the latent desire throughout. I was unsure as to why Malvolio, much in need of stripping off, was marked out by remaining in his morph suit – must he still be excluded beyond the borders of Shakespeare’s script?
More remains to be said about this production, due to the richness of characterisation, stage design and the integration of music and movement. But for now, I’m glad to see such a bold new direction being taken.