Twelfth Night at Dalriada – Review

Tudor Christmas festivities traditionally lasted from All Hallows to the Epiphany in January; the final evening was a time of merry making, disorder and musical interludes and the spirit of that occasion was perfectly captured in Terry Hunter & Rachel Millican’s thoroughly enjoyable production of “Twelfth Night” which ran from 1st – 4th December, 2010 at Dalriada School.

The simple but ingenious composite setting allowed the actors to use a platform in front of the proscenium, around which sat members of the company, leading the audience responses like appreciative Groundlings, and the higher level of the stage itself. Here were echoes of the play’s best known line:” If music be the food of love…” in the sheet music which highlighted the frame and the musical notes arching across the back wall. Stage boxes, screens and a chaise longue were used to provide variety in groupings and as hiding places and good use was made of a huge trunk from which appeared various props and items of costume and some comic surprises including an outsize bar of chocolate, a light sabre and a rubber chicken! In keeping with the musical theme, the stage and the front of the platform were dressed with a fascinating selection of musical instruments: some were played by the cast but many were broken – appropriate symbols, perhaps, in a play that combines comic reconciliations with vengeful cruelty.

As soon as the forty strong company began to gather before the performance,adding photos of the cast in rehearsal to those of previous Dalriada productions of “Twelfth Night” amidst the strains of “Love me Tender”, the audience must have begun to suspect that they were in a for a few surprises. We were not disappointed. From safety announcements in iambic pentameters to a gospel choir, a photograph of the Manor Hotel and splendid Queen tribute led by Ben Freddie Mercury Goudy, this was production with commanded our complete attention.

Scene changes were indicated by a digital projection on the back wall which also served to highlight key words and phrases from the text and to provide comic touches such as Antonio’s wanted poster and Olivia and Sebastian’s wedding picture. Where this technology was most effective was in the imaginatively torch-lit scene where Malvolio is imprisoned in “a dark house”; watching live images of the victim of this practical joke poignantly emphasised how malicious his tormentors really were. The technical wizardry was slickly carried out and the Lighting and Sound teams were similarly precise and supportive. Both must have been kept busy as the actors used the full acting area and sound effects ranged from the opening storm at sea and persistent rain (for the rain it raineth every day, after all) to the cry of a peacock and an ominous synthesised drone which changed the mood from the joy of Olivia’s first kiss to the scene of her steward’s suffering.

In a play where “nothing that is so is so”, Carla Hunter as Viola made a convincingly macho Cesario and a poignantly isolated and love-lorn girl, besotted by Graham Cooper’s initially self-indulgent Orsino. The pair sustained their characters beautifully during the “Somebody to Love” interlude, Viola fiercely adoring and Orsino subtly bewildered by his feelings for his servant. The other couple, Sebastian and Olivia, were equally convincing. Christy Gregg made an entertaining shift from serious lost brother to gleefully opportunistic husband and we saw both Olivia’s determined grief at the start and then her joyous transformation to enthusiastic lover. This role was shared between Sarah McQuillan and Bethany MIllican: my spies inform me that Sarah used her warm & modulated voice to good effect and Bethany made excellent use of facial expression and body language to convey Olivia’s infectious delight in her feelings for Cesario. Both Olivias offered a serene, poised foil to the ribald behaviour of the men in her household. As Antonio, who risks his life for his friend and gets little thanks for it, Simon Hunter suggested just the right amount of selfless brotherly love and indignation when his sacrifice is seemingly forgotten. His final gesture reminded us that not everyone finds their happy ending, even in a comedy.

But there was plenty to laugh at. Gavin Harvey, as a just-drunk-enough Sir Toby Belch (and he did!) and Tabitha Graham as a very intelligent, mischievous Maria led the plot against Richard Lee’s “stuffed with excellence” Malvolio. Gavin commanded the stage throughout, making the most of his comic opportunities. He was ably matched by Mark Kerr as the stunningly flaxen haired Sir Andrew – who succeeded in earning the audiences’ sympathy as well as their laughter- and Marcus McLean as Fabian. This trio provided some splendid moments of theatre particularly in their chaotic attempts to hide from Malvolio, where Marcus showed his flair for physical comedy, and in the trumped-up sword fight with Cesario which gave Carla Hunter the chance to show her ability as comic actress. A special word of praise must go to Tabitha who proved convincingly that Shakespeare’s Blank Verse can indeed sound just like natural speech.

Mrs Millican and Dr Hunter opted for naturalistic makeup and clever suggestions of costume – identical jackets for the twins, the bright pink boa for Olivia transformed by love, heart badges for Orsino’s court- so that when Malvolio swapped his puritanical collar and severe hairstyle for “yellow stockings cross-gartered”, curls and sequinned blue pantaloons the impact was hilariously unforgettable. Richard clearly relished his role both as the dour courtier and the inanely grinning, flamboyant suitor.

Presiding over this “improbable fiction” is Feste, the Twelfth Night Lord of Misrule, played by Joel Hunter. This is a demanding role for a young actor as Feste both takes part in the action and stands outside it. In a mature, thoughtful interpretation, Joel managed to combine a melancholy intelligence and a sense of fun in a way which so often characterises Shakespeare’s Fools – and he can sing!

Given the high standards of performance achieved by the Principals, it must come as no surprise that all the minor characters were played effectively. I heard no prompts on Saturday night and saw no lapses in concentration; there was obviously excellent team work both on and off stage and much credit must go to Producers’ Assistant and jack-of all trades, Craig Wysner. In the finale, the whole company stepped out of their Shakespearean characters and celebrated together – a happy conclusion to a memorable evening.

Terry Hunter and Rachel Millican should be delighted with the success of their first production at Dalriada. On the final night, Mrs Millican paid tribute to her father, the late Roy Alcorn, who produced plays and musicals at the school for fourteen years. She was quite right – he would have loved this “Twelfth Night”!

Grey Capilet
8th December 2010