Friday, April 15, 2016

'Twelfth Night' at the Hope Theatre, 15th April 2016

Shakespeare's tragedies are still tragic. His histories are still historical. His comedies? Well, let's be diplomatic and say that, these days, they're not exactly "ha-ha" funny. Obviously they're jampacked full of transcendent writing and imagery, but the actual gags generally don't generally get modern audiences rolling in the aisles. 

Perhaps we're just not getting the allusions that amused Elizabethan audiences? Maybe Shakespeare's dick and fart jokes are a bit too cryptic? Possibly it's as simple as the Bard being held in such high reverence that audiences are too intimidated to laugh out loud.

Enter Thick as Thieves' Twelfth Night. The tale of cross-dressing calamity and compounded confusion has proved to be one of Shakespeare's most enduring comedies. It's not quite in the public consciousness as much as Hamlet/Romeo & Juliet/Macbeth, but it's a fine farce that I've enjoyed a couple of times over the years.

But I've never laughed this much, and this loudly.

Thick as Thieves ably manage the tricky alchemical combo of delivering Shakespearian dialogue naturally while at the same time being incredibly silly. With a cast of just four (Nicky Diss, Thomas Judd, Madi MacMahon and Oliver Lavery) taking on thirteen roles (not to mention doing all their own lighting and music cues), the show is a dizzying whirlwind of characters dashing on and off stage and frantic costume changes. It looks chaotic, but must actually be a finely oiled performance machine rehearsed within an inch of its life.

Last year I saw the same company sprint through The Tempest. I deeply enjoyed that, the production feeling as if it was blowing away the cobwebs of stuffy Shakespearian adaptations I'd seen. This follows suit, perhaps besting it with more consistently ridiculousness.

The company obviously relishes the language, taking a particular pleasure picking through the more grandiloquent vocabulary in the play. All impress, though I quickly developed a particular appreciation of Thomas Judd's delivery, calculated to mine every molecule of humour from the play. There's a Rizla's difference between the rest of them; each finding hundreds of tiny characterful moments in this rich soil.

On top of that, the four are superlative physical comedians. Despite shuffling characters like a magician with a deck of cards, it's easy to tell who's who. Partly this is because of simple and striking costuming, but mainly because of their body language and facial expressions. Particularly impressive was Nicky Diss' switching between the drunk and bawdy Sir Toby and earnestly awkward Viola. In a great touch, as the scenes eventually call for more than four people on stage, members of the audience are pressganged into service in supporting roles (though the timid should be reassured that this only involves sitting silently while wearing a silly hat).

My only real criticism is that the actual plot becomes a teensy bit hard to follow. Obscured by the rapid character and costume changes, there's a focus on making the audience giggle rather than clear narrative. Knowing Thick as Thieves style I'd figured this might happen, so boned up on the plot before I went. Thank god I had, because even with my revision I still lost the thread a couple of times.

That aside, Thick as Thieves breathes fresh life into the text. These plays can sometimes feel calcified - yet in these eight capable hands they fizz with energy and straight-up gut bustin' laughs. Whether you're a scholar or a total newbie, this is Shakespeare worth seeing.


Twelfth Night is at The Hope Theatre, Upper Street until 30th April 2016. Tickets here.

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