Twelfth Night is the last and arguably the finest of Shakespeare's romantic comedies. First performed on Candlemas Day 1602 it encompasses and refines many of the themes and elements explored in earlier works. Along the way, we have the shipwreck and identical twins both found in the Comedy of Errors, and like Verona's Julia, Viola disguises herself as a boy and more specifically acts as page and emissary for someone that inspires her love. Further parallels exist and it would be too crass to state that this fine comedy is in somewhat uninspired. It is a tale as the fool, Feste (James Studds), says 'were played upon a stage now' would be condemned 'as an improbable fiction'.
Tomahawk's production although heartfelt probably suffered by setting it within a 'twenties/thirties' environment that jarred against the magnificence of Oxford Castle's Courtyard. At times, the sheer size of the arena distracted by causing prolonged exits that often left a gaping gap in the proceedings. Moreover, the acoustics left younger performers insufficiently projected so that nuances of speech were lost to those in the audience not confident with the narrative.
This of course is the last of the 'happy' comedies and revels in its good humour even though Olivia's court is in mourning. In this production, unfortunately Feste, a key driver, lost the spirit. Singing "I'm Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter" is no substitute for the witty and acerbic. Do not forget that when Shakespeare created his next Fool, he would drive him out into the wind and rain along with Lear and all the other 'poor naked wretches'. So let's make the most of this one.
So definitely slow at first but marvelously brought back to life by Alexander Rogers' Malvolio, the 'notorious geck and gull' that Sir Toby Belch points is so 'virtuous' as to believe there will no more be 'cakes and ale'. The tricking of the 'Puritan' is bitter cruelty yet in a dramatic sense fun to watch. It offers a much-needed contrast to the cross dressing nonsense and the courtly moping lovers that takes up the rest of the story.
Admittedly there may have a few niggles throughout the evening but Sir Toby (Alex Nicholls),Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Chris Gladwin) and Maria (Samantha Knipe) overrule those concerns and offer all the best reasons for seeing Rachel Johnson's production.