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Shakespeare in the cemetery? Twelfth Night at Abney Park Cemetery

Repost: with One Stop Arts closing, I migrated this review here.

In the green wilds of Abney Park Cemetery, Kelly Eva-May endowed Viola with an elegiac tenderness for Orsino, keenly expressing a desire felt all the more deeply for its denial. Alex Southern’s Orsino had a languid sensuality highlighting the capriciousness of his character’s disbelief that women could ever be as constant or feel as deeply as men. Comedically, Daniel Osgerby shone as a deliciously pretentious Malvolio.

n the lush surrounds of Abney Park Cemetery, the audience makes its way single file to the first scene space for Twelfth Night, close trees accentuating the gloaming light of evening around us. Surprisingly quickly were the rough sounds of traffic along Stoke Newington High Street swallowed up by vegetation, leaving us transported to a new and disquieting realm. It is a bold choice to stage a comedy in such a place. The perambulatory setting is one of the production’s strengths: by forcing us to walk about between scenes, there is time to consider and to discuss each scene in a way that there isn’t with traditionally structured stage performances. Making the audience move also compels us to physically involve ourselves, to make choices that then affect our perceptions of the proceedings.

Twelfth Night is one of Shakespeare’s “shipwreck” comedies: our heroine Viola arrives on a foreign shore after her ship breaks apart, cleaving her from her twin brother Sebastian, not knowing whether he is alive or dead. Seeking not to “be delivered to the world” until knowing what her own circumstances are, Viola decides to dress as a man and obtain a position in the household of the duke whose country it is, Orsino. Once thus installed, Viola’s chief duty is to pay court on Orsino’s behalf to Olivia, a yet-unmarried noblewoman whose father and brother both recently died, leaving her in perpetual mourning for her brother while spurning Orsino’s advances.

Kelly Eva-May endows Viola with an elegiac tenderness for Orsino, keenly expressing a desire felt all the more deeply for its denial. Anyone who has been in love with someone they should not (and which among us hasn’t?) will feel those heartstrings tugged by Eva-May’s performance. Alex Southern gives Orsino a languid sensuality that highlights the capriciousness of his character’s disbelief that women could ever be as constant or feel as deeply as men: why then love Olivia so ardently, if it is impossible to hope of an equal return? Southern gives the suggestion that Orsino is less in love with Olivia than he is with professing himself to be so.

Olivia, played with a shrill and imperious haste by Charlotte Green, does not seem a worthy object for the duke’s tender affections. Where her performance succeeds is as a foil to Daniel Osgerby’s deliciously pretentious Malvolio. Malvolio’s tale is a subplot that never fails as a crowd-pleaser, with the audience always eager to see such a self-important little fusspot made ridiculous. It struck me, though, that Malvolio is only ridiculous because his aggrandized opinion of himself outstrips his station: were he of Olivia’s and Orsino’s rank, those below would have to defer to him as he wishes. In this production Olivia is not a sympathetic character but spoilt, haughty, and preening, and it is only her wealth and status which prevent others from voicing the same opinions of her as they openly do of Malvolio.

Dylan Turner’s Antonio, a sea brigand who (surprise!) delivers Sebastian safely to land in Act II, has the hardest luck of any character in the play with the possible exception of Malvolio. After following Sebastian into danger by remaining in Orsino’s country, where Antonio is a wanted man, he believes himself betrayed by Sebastian when he is arrested while defending Viola, who in her masculine disguise is a mirror of her brother. Things only get worse when it turns out at the end that Sebastian, played with charm by Dominic Morgan, went off and married Olivia when nobody was looking. I could see Antonio’s expressions of ardent devotion to Sebastian turning to ash in his mouth. Two couples safely allied – for Orsino now offers his hand to Viola – and what of poor Antonio?

Lucy Beardmore-Gray gives a wittily rumbustious performance as Sir Andrew, content to find as much mischief as might be arranged in Olivia’s household. In this she is aided by Harry Winterbottom’s drunken Sir Toby, Jodyanne Richardson’s arch and worldly-wise Maria, and Sarah Warren’s impish and mimicry-gifted Fool. Katerina Eliott aids Viola’s subterfuge with her informative turn as the West Country sea captain, and later firmly subdued Antonio as an officer.

There was one area where the company’s intentions for their inaugural performance did not come through strongly. LonelyCloud states in the programme that “all of our work is underpinned by a ‘philosophy of gender’.” I am a gender theorist by background, and came prepared to adore this production: gender is a question always at the forefront of my mind, and I was curious to see what LonelyCloud would offer for our consideration. But in the end, I didn’t see how this particular production of Twelfth Night was more or differently gendered than other productions. I liked, respected and esteemed the performance – these are degrees to love, Olivia might protest. But in the end they are not love. Nevertheless I look forward to seeing how LonelyCloud develops in future productions. A “philosophy of gender” should be at the forefront of more minds.

Originally reviewed for One Stop Arts on 5 July 2013.