"To please you every day"
by Avril Silk for remotegoat on 18/02/17

Sun and Moon Theatre’s compassionate and intelligent retelling of ‘Twelfth Night’ delighted a full house at Exeter’s Cygnet Theatre. The decision to set it a hundred years ago, with echoes of terrible conflict far, but not far enough, away, is inspired. The distant war gives depth and motivation to both the melancholy and the merriment – after all, ‘they are not long/the days of wine and roses’.

The subtle, effective, spare staging, costumes and props convey the austerity of life during wartime, excellently captured in the black and white silent movie that told the story of the shipwreck that parted Viola and Sebastian. On reflection I wondered whether more could have been made of the projections – the endless sea giving way to No Man’s Land; the singing of ‘Silent Night’ with images of British and German soldiers playing football during the unauthorised Christmas truces. I would not want to undermine the light, delicate touch of artistic directors and founders Melissa Barrett and David Johnson, but I would like to have the discussion!

As the separated twins, Melissa and David are well matched – and well served by simple costumes that do not accentuate their differences. (Unlike the unforgivably unflattering beige and orange doublet and hose I was encumbered with when playing Viola at college. Beige tights! But I digress.) I liked the fact that however much David’s Sebastian’s resembles his sister, their respective masculinity and femininity are not compromised, but quietly evident.

Melissa’s Viola/Cesario has a gentle charm, intelligence and sense of fun, caught between two pillars of melancholy – Orsino (Ben Gilbert) and Olivia (Emily Holyoake). The moment when Olivia enlivens her formal mourning garb with vivid red lipstick is excitingly shocking, as Emily successfully steers her countess through a wide and complex range of emotions. As well as the wounded, self-pitying, volatile Duke Orsino, Ben Gilbert plays the loyal friend Antonio with subtle layers of feeling that serve the character well.

Sun and Moon fully realised the potential for laughter in the baiting of Malvolio, beautifully played by Richard Knox. Emerson Pike’s rumbustious Sir Toby, David Johnson’s gullible Sir Andrew and Jessica Holyoake’s mischievous Maria relished the chance to bring low their haughty, condescending tormentor. The co-conspirators played Malvolio like a fiddle and his appearance in yellow stockings was blissfully funny. Never far away, though, was the potential for cruelty that informs many practical jokes, and Sun and Moon did not flinch from this. We watch as the joke goes too far – and Richard Knox and Emily Holyoake as mistress and servant made Malvolio's discomfort and grievance very real. Furthermore, behind the comedy and the cruelty, behind the drinking and buffoonery, we have the horror of war; the reality of the telegram that gives resonance to the interplay between Emerson Pike and Jessica Holyoake. The usually lusty, drunken fumbles between Sir Toby and Maria are something altogether different when underpinned with loss and pathos. This production ensures that Sir Andrew, Sir Toby and Malvolio are not bereft of dignity.

The versatile and talented musicians illuminated layers of meaning in the text with their soldiers’ songs, Christmas carols and music for the lovelorn. Many congratulations to Elisabeth Burnette, Chelsea Marie and Mike Gilpin for weaving the musical score into the play to such excellent effect. I relished Mike Gilpin’s Feste. He brought a singer-songwriter’s sensibility to the role of Shakespeare’s most likeable Clown – welcome everywhere, belonging nowhere – no-one’s man but his own with an overview of all the characters and their situations.

Some audibility issues at the beginning could easily be addressed (Olivia, Orsino and Maria). I hope this talented young company will have further opportunities to stage their thoroughly engaging interpretation of a deservedly well-loved play. They have brought considerable creativity and ingenuity to the text and their talent deserves to be enjoyed in other venues as much as it was at the Cygnet.

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