I can’t say I was desperate to see this Shakespeare classic at York’s Rose Theatre. However, I’d enjoyed Romeo and Juliet so much a year ago, it seemed like a must to revisit. It’s more than just a glorious theatre, but an immersive experience, with the mix of food stalls, merch stands and a band who looked like they’d escaped from the set of A Field in England.
Thankfully nothing as horrific as Ben Wheatley’s film here, aside from some folks who haven’t grasped the concept of queuing for their drinks at half time.
As for the show itself, despite a glorious crash course in the complete works of Will the other week with Ian McKellen during his theatre tour, I couldn’t remember which one this is.
Anyway, as we settle into our seats for the epic performance, I soak up that magnificent set. It looks like a masterpiece from Ikea: the large pink Illyria logo, the life-size Art Deco human light, and the beautiful array of wooden planks, dovetailing.
As the show begins and a band strikes up, I’m amazed that this is part musical and mostly comedy, all done in the style of a West End farce, with shades of PG Wodehouse or Noel Coward. However, there are times when some of the cast seem to be channelling Julie Walters’ Mrs Overall, or scenes from Dinnerladies.
Yes, things do go from Bard to verse, and the level of audience interaction is better than any panto. As the tale of Viola and her twin brother Sebastian, washed ashore in different locations on Illyria unfolds, I recall a critic who once said that no comedy involving twins is ever funny. Admittedly it’s a tired conceit, but in 1601, it must have seemed fresh as a daisy.
And the great thing about the gender-swapping characters (a woman mistaken for a young man, which obviously was sent up so gloriously with ‘Bob’ and Blackadder in 1986), it’s great fuel for a story. The farce leads to comedic confusion and the inevitable revelation segueing into the finale. As story engines go, it’s like a Ferrari powering the audience and cast through the twisty turny plot toward that ending.
The cast, including Fine Time Fontayne as Sir Toby Belch, is outstanding. There’s so much physical comedy, with a wealth of sight gags, kudos to director Joyce Branagh (sister of Ken) for doing such an excellent job.
Brightest star of the show, among many stars, is Cassie Vallance as often hilarious servant Fabian. Her comedic reactions and actions bring the house down. There are times when I have to force myself to look at other actors because she dominates every scene she’s in. And yes, there is a lot going on here.
This version was about 20 minutes too long, but the play’s the thing, and who edits Stratford’s greatest storyteller? I’d happily spend the same amount of time with that amazing cast, even if they just offered a post-show Q&A.
Comedy wouldn’t be half as effective without tragedy, and Malvolio’s descent into madness is utterly heartbreaking, not least because it comes so soon after uproarious farce. Take a bow Claire Storey for such an affecting turn. (I’ll admit I’m still concerned for Malvolio’s welfare 12 hours later, and that’s the secret of a great character, and a wonderful performance).
The fact I knew so little of the story didn’t matter a jot. The audience loved every minute so little wonder it got a standing ovation. Whether you’re a hardcore Shakespeare fan or like me and my cultural co-pilot, casual observers, this is an unmissable experience.
“Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them.” For the third part of that classic line from said play, cast and crew can rest easy. Mission accomplished. It’s one of the funniest stage shows I’ve seen all year, in one of the greatest settings. It feels like this is now an annual event, and if so, I’ll happily be back next summer.
James Cundall, one of the driving forces behind the whole experience, should be rightly proud of what he and his army of co-workers have achieved. Shakespeare for the masses, and a hugely enjoyable experience at that.
By Roger Crow (ON:Magazine)