Perth Theatre, Perth, 30 September 2011
IF IT'S a bold start you're after, you can't fault Rachel O'Riordan. Making her debut as artistic director at Perth Theatre, the former choreographer from Northern Ireland is fielding upwards of 14 actors in the company's first Shakespeare for six years. It sets her inaugural season off to a confident, unapologetic start, but unfortunately, not a wholly satisfying one.
On paper, this Twelfth Night has a tremendous amount going for it. Beneath a brooding sky of grey clouds, designer Diego Pitarch lines up a mix-and-match assortment of front doors, as if in readiness for the most chaotic of farces, while a grand staircase sweeps down the middle of the stage allowing the actors to play at multiple heights.
Lighting designer James Whiteside does a classy job at picking out the actors and when Count Orsino says, "If music be the food of love, play on," it is none other than Conor Mitchell at the baby grand. He recently scored Ten Plagues for Marc Almond on the Edinburgh Fringe and is in particularly florid form here.
There are some strong performances too, notably from Laura O'Toole as Viola, the lady who disguises herself as a man after being washed ashore in an unknown land, only to be mistaken for her identical twin brother whom she had presumed drowned. With her inter-war short-back-and-sides, O'Toole has an androgynous charm and an endearingly earnest manner as she finds herself falling for Martin Ledwith's gruff and uncharismatic Orsino, while Samara MacLaren's frisky Olivia falls for her.
Sadly, it takes more than confidence to kick-start a play into life and, despite the better efforts of the various talents involved, this one largely misfires.
It's a consequence of O'Riordan playing it for maximum psychological realism. It is an approach that can work and it does give the characters considerable integrity, but here, it also robs them of their comic potential. This is a play inspired by festive cross-dressing and confusion. It is an anarchic carnival in which convention is upturned, pomposity pricked and romantic delusion exposed. But in this production, everyone takes things so seriously the story seems more traumatic than comic.
This is true even in the most obviously knockabout scenes between Steven McNicoll's Sir Toby Belch and John Paul Hurley's Sir Andrew Aguecheek. The object of their derision, Tom Marshall's Malvolio, is so moderate in his behaviour that their plot to humiliate him comes across as bullying instead of comic comeuppance. When he is tricked into dressing preposterously in front of Olivia, we find it more sad than funny.
It leaves us with a mature, slick and polished production, but too wistful and elegiac to do justice to the comedy. (Pic: Eammon McGoldrick)
© Mark Fisher 2011