Castle Theatre Company from the University of Durham in the United Kingdom presented one of William Shakespeare’s most adept comedies, Twelfth Night, at the Carriage House in the Wethersfield Estate, Amenia, this past Wednesday evening. Director Lucy Knight adopted the traditional fast-paced dialogue and quick action associated with Elizabethan comedy. This version was in modern dress, a feature I usually object to, yet here it paced the boards quite well as the Company improvised at their new venue. This was the Company’s second stop in their whirlwind tour of the East Coast, having just played in Manhattan’s Central Park the day before.
Assigning the opening monologue to the fool Feste (instead of Duke Orsino), Barney Mercer, who sang with marvelous voice and was most ridiculously serious in upside-down repartee, opened with the famous monologue: “If music be the food of love, play on.” Yes, there were four musicians: flute, lute, clarinet, and guitar to supplement the twelve actor-apostles of Willy the Scribbler, who was up to much mischief in this whacky comedy of sexual disguise, upstairs-downstairs resentments, and foolish plotting by people who should have had better sense. But that was the fun of it in the alternative title Or What you Will, which highlighted the author’s name. Mercer was so lively that his smile ruled the stage.
While this play may have been written just before Hamlet, it was the first play produced after Hamlet. There was some slight, sensible pruning of the play by Lucy Knight, yet she kept alive the cutting satiric jokes at the Puritan’s expense. One new innovation was to change Malvolio to Malvolia, ably played by Jazzy Price who was superbly in distress during the last act. This interpretation left open the possibility that the trickster enemies, fool Feste and Malvolia, might actually be enamored fiercely of each other.
The lead role of Viola/Cesario in male disguise was quite believable under the firm hat of Emma Louise-Howell, whose heart commanded the stage. Steph Sarrat as Olivia was appropriately cold and stern during the first of the two acts, and a puddle of emotion in the second act. Emily Lean as Olivia’s servant appeared as a convincing shift-shaping chameleon in staid uniform.
The blustering, fatuous role of Sir Toby Belch, the true fool of the play, at the hands of Danny Booth was slightly over-the-top, but this remains a difficult role that lacks the more sober depths of Falstaff.
Once the double identity of Viola/Cesario is unmasked amid plots and counter-plots, she happily marries her Duke and her presumed-dead brother Sebastian, fairly played by Theo-Holt-Bailey, marries the Duke’s exceedingly rich sister Olivia.
The play concludes with the Fool’s song (a catchy tune probably written by John Dowland), here well-sung by all in chorus. The conclusion was a festive choreography that reveled in a variety of joyous dance steps in multiple combinations that the company executed with infectious verve as the music played on.
And, of course, the Fool—a shadow of Will—is not mad, but the sanest wit alive, as you will.