Wilderness Festival: The Oxford Shakespeare Company Presents Twelfth Night

The Oxford Shakespeare Company’s Twelfth Night, from a performance in the gardens of Wadham College.

An idea is an errant thing. Once loose, it is liable to spread, and if it spreads it can mutate like bacteria, with completely new and unpredictable results. This was a point of discussion at Wilderness on Sunday afternoon from the Odditorium, in relation to conceptual art and Internet forums (more on this in my next report). But this is a truth older than the twentieth century, of course. Shakespeare evidently knew the excellent potential of elusive ideas as canon fodder for drama.

Twelfth Night is no exception to this Shakespearean tendency towards trickery and deceit. For love is one of its central themes, and when we are in love we are rarely ourselves. This is never more the case for Viola, harbouring a secret love for the lovesick bachelor Duke Orsino, while she is masquerading as a eunuch and his servant. And in the fateful case of Malvolio, his love leads him to wilful delusive daydreaming that leaves him all too vulnerable to Maria’s cruel letter prank. His own wild ideas feed off hers and lead him down the dark path to madness.

A play so dense with hormones and heartfelt longing is destined to strike a chord with modern audiences, and this particular production so deftly taps into this. As is common with Shakespeare’s plays, as the drama unfolds in Twelfth Night the audience is further drawn into the charades on stage by being privy to information that individual characters are not. Nicholas Green’s production for the Oxford Shakespeare Company highlights this by having the actors regularly break the fourth wall to engage with the audience. I felt their pain and joined in their longing, while also enjoying their revelry.

This particular play is indeed peppered with merrymaking, singing and drinking, so could not be a better choice of play to be set in the woods as part of a music festival (“If music be the food of love, play on,” goes the famous opening lines.) These stylishly clad actors (none of whom would look out of place wandering through the festival itself) form a skiffle-style band that sets the scene at the opening and rejoins at various points throughout the play, performing a rousing and at times poignant score by Nicholas Lloyd Webber.

Oxford Shakespeare Company are known for their open-air, site-specific performances. The setting for the afternoon’s performance at Wilderness, deep in the woods and away from the hubbub of the main festival site, seems to suit this performance perfectly, and the majestic trees around provide wonderful acoustics for the music and the dialogue.

It is difficult not to warm to all the characters here, portrayed as a rag-tag bunch of bohemian misfits. The swaggering, sexy Duke Orsino (played by David Alwyn) oozed with the charm and eloquence of Russell Brand, and it is not difficult to understand how he could become obsessed with Molly Roberts’ chic and sassy portrayal of Olivia. Neither for that matter is it hard to see how the geeky, sad figure of Malvolio (played by James Lavender) could fall for her to the point of humiliation. So charmed was I by Robert Madeley’s performance as the clown Feste that I felt like joining him down some East London boozer to drink a few jars, share a few stories and put the world to rights.

The performance from the woods at Wilderness was in fact an abridged version of the performance held at Wadham College in Oxford this summer, but it flows seamlessly, romping along with some remarkably well executed costume changes and snappy physical performances. I enjoyed the folly and watching the plot be revealed. Although I was left feeling very unsatisfied by the outcome for Viola by the end (who seems to remain something of an object for the opportunistic Orsino), overall this was an utterly charming production that invites you on a hedonistic journey to Illyria. For the finale the band reformed to see us all off on our own merry way through the trees and back to the festival.

Becky is a writer, editor and researcher of visual arts and the environment. She lives in Oxford.

She works collaboratively with Inheritance Projects—a small group of independent curators and researchers that organise exhibitions, events, new commissions, publications and research projects.

She blogs at Atmospheres of Uncertainty.

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