Phil Hopkins, Arts & Travel Editor

Twelfth Night - Nuanced Joy In York

Shakespeare’s language by definition escapes a huge chunk of the population, so it is often left to great direction – as well as acting – to make every twist, turn and nuance of the Bard’s work come to life.

And, last night, I saw one of the most beautifully crafted productions of Twelfth Night at York’s temporary Shakespeare Rose Theatre, that I have seen for many a year; what an absolute joy.

So, having made my bold opening statement, I must surely pay credit to the wonderful direction of Joyce Branagh, one of several freelance directors brought in to deliver this year’s four rolling productions at York: Hamlet, The Tempest Henry V and last night’s joyous comedy.

Interestingly – and it is to her strength – Branagh has not only directed her fair share of William’s work, but has also partaken of much panto, nay I have seen a raft of her work at Huddersfield’s Lawrence Batley Theatre as part of my annual festive workload, which invariably involves reviewing an infinite number of pantomimes whilst singing 360 verses of Baby Shark!

But I digress. This ‘comedic’ eye and ‘ear’ for Shakespeare’s language enabled Branagh to deliver a beautiful production that wrung every last laugh out of this top-notch comedy……and the audience positively loved it.

A Preview of all productions at York's Rose Theatre

It was my first time at the open air Rose Theatre – I opted for an undercover seat! – and it was a unique experience; the dialogue was clearer than at half the shows I see across Yorkshire, and there were no delayed performances as happened at one West Yorkshire theatre because ‘one of the mics went down!’

Dare I say it, these were real actors with excellent diction and great projection, not graduates of The Voice, invariably desperate for good technicians and voice correction software!

Fine Time Fontayne as drunken sot, Sir Toby Belch, along with his 3,000 ducats a year ‘friend’, Air Andrew Aguecheek – played with carefully crafted cowardice by Alex Phelps - were wonderful anchors as the comedy interest in Shakespeare’s romantic play of mixed identities in the mythical land of Illyria.

This time there was no snow or Christmassy setting – the play traditionally takes place around January 5th - with the emphasis being on the music and creating a backdrop that would allow this aspect of the play to shine; the vibrant art deco scenery and Sara Perks’ pastel costume shades created more of a summery feel appropriate, perhaps, to the open air nature of the playing space.

Clare Corbett’s Feste – the ‘fool’ of the piece – was seamless and it is credit to her learning powers that she also doubles up as Horatio in Hamlet every few days; Shakespearian actors should always eat plenty of oily fish; good for the memory I hear!

And Cassie Vallance as the gormless maid cum helper Fabian, used the canvass of her contorted body, the expressions of a loon and teeth of well-meaning horse, to have me rolling in the aisles; her lines were comparatively few but the performance no less than those with pages of dialogue.

And that was the strength of this production, no one carried anyone because every actor paid his or her way: Leandra Ashton as lustful Olivia, Mark Holgate as the highly strung, tense Duke Orsino and Claire Storey as the overly staid Malvolio, the man with a penchant for yellow tights and garters.

This was a thoroughly enjoyable evening and it would be good to see how this identical cast performs as they switch to Hamlet in a matter of days; watch this space but, for now, watch this production. If you’re a Shakespearian beginner it will hand hold you through one of the Bard’s ‘lighter’ plays perfectly and, if you’re a stalwart, then you’ll chortle more effectively than a hyena on laughing gas!

Here is the rolling performance schedule: http://www.shakespearesrosetheatre.com/york/performance-schedule