It’s one of many playful and inventive touches in Faction Theatre’s hugely endearing production of Shakespeare’s comedy, the first in an ambitious repertory season that also includes Schiller’s Mary Stuart and Strindberg’s Miss Julie.
The company previously tackled the play in 2009 and many of the same cast return, albeit in different roles. Stripping the performance space back to a bare black box and using hardly any props, Mark Leipacher’s production has a pleasing visual unity: the eleven-strong company come together to create the box tree behind which Sir Toby Belch and Sir Andrew Aguecheek conceal themselves, their fingers fanning like branches gently blown by the breeze; they also become the waves which wash Viola and Sebastian onto Illyria’s shores and, in a particularly chilling touch, they crowd together to create the oubliette within which Malvolio is confined, their seemingly disembodied hands curling around his body and pressing against his face, creating an intense sensation of claustrophobia.
Gareth Fordred’s militaristic Malvolio stands out among a capable ensemble cast. He wears his hair greasily slicked to one side and his leg in a calliper, which brings an extra degree of rigidity to his movements and manner and makes the moment when he believes Olivia has praised his gait feel all the more cruel. His bug-eyed, manic delight on receiving this misleading epistle is quite wrenching to watch and, dignity swiftly abandoned, he all but treads on the front row’s toes as he gleefully recalls each one her compliments; as a result his later, hobbling humiliation is all the more piercing.
As Belch and Aguecheek, Richard Delaney and Jonny McPherson transcend their respective moustaches (one sports a ratty Chaplin toothbrush, the other the salt-and-pepper lip-wig of a gouty colonel) to form a lively double-act. The production also neatly conveys the sense that these men, and Malvolio too, are veterans of a past conflict. Derval Mellett’s Olivia revels in her post-coital undoing at the hands of Sebastian, switching the black of mourning for something more vibrant with almost unseemly haste, her hair tumbling around her shoulders and her eyes brimming with bedroom heat. In comparison Kate Sawyer makes a rather understated Viola and appears as bemused and alarmed by Olivia’s advances towards her as by Aguecheek’s wobbly attempt to engage her in a duel. Lachlan McCall’s Feste brings a contemporary freshness to the play’s songs, plucking them out on his banjo.
There’s an occasional roughness to the verse speaking, and the odd dropped line, but this economical, intelligent take on the play doesn’t suffer for it. Indeed the rawness helps the audience to connect with the text and to get swept up in the plight of the characters. Through the company’s easy, relaxed way with the play – and the simple fanning of hands – a door is opened and you are invited in.
Reviewed for Exeunt