David Thacker’s relationship with Shakespeare is a substantial one. He has directed 28 productions of the Bard. For the 29th, Thacker tackles Twelfth Night at the Octagon Theatre in Bolton with a refreshing 1930s twist.

Upstairs in his bachelor’s loft, Duke Orsino (Michael Shelford) plays his piano with slow jazz flourishes. Downstairs in the stately house, the mournful Olivia (Natalie Grady) wilts upon her chaise lounge as her servers and kin mingle in the kitchen. The Twelfth Night, true to its name, begins with the Christmas tree being removed and decorations coming down. The drunken, sleepy calm of post-Christmas is captured tenderly by Orsino’s melodic piano playing and the quiet murmur of the characters in their daily habits.

Suddenly, the roaring tempest rips through the calm as Viola (Rosie Jones) and Sebastian (Tristan Brooke) are washed up in the middle of the round stage. Brother and sister, each believing the other dead, go their separate ways. Viola, entering Count Orsino’s court dressed as the boy Cesario, gets unwittingly tangled in a love triangle between herself, Orsino and Olivia.

Back at the stately house the sleepiness has not yet been shaken off. In the round, Ciaran Bagnall’s stage design works wonderfully. The indoor areas are created distinctively and effectively by the furniture alone, and Thacker allows his actors to move with freedom between different areas of the stage. But despite the openness of the stage, it takes until the end of the first half for the space to swell with the energy of this ensemble.

Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare. Photo credite Ian Tilton (1)Characters laze around the stage while not in action and scenes are halted slightly by tinkling piano interludes, making the beginning seem a little slow and melancholic. But then the play bursts into life with the scheming of Olivia’s drunken Uncle, Sir Toby Belch (Ian Blower), the foolish Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Mawgan Gyles), a ukulele-playing buffoon called Feste (Maxwell Hutcheon) and Olivia’s playful maid, Maria (Jessica Baglow).

These revellers’ teasing and torturing of the straight-laced Malvolio (Christopher Villiers) provide the comedy with its most truly uplifting and farcical moments, with each of the bawdy bunch bringing something to the bottle-strewn kitchen table. Particular mention, however, goes to Mawgan Gyles for a gleefully camp and excitable Aguecheek who, despite not managing to woo Olivia, certainly succeeds in stealing the audience.

The stand-out scene before the interval finds all these merrymakers hidden in the kitchen spying on Malvolio as he is gulled into believing that Olivia is in love with him. Villiers steals the scene as Malvolio is melted by the promise of Olivia’s love. But the scene owes much to his onlookers, too. Like the majority of the play, everyone is on stage. But, rather than lounging about aimlessly, they have a reason to be there which gives the scene an excitable tension that bubbles to the surface as they hurry away and hide from the obliviously advancing Malvolio. At one moment, Aguecheek takes a seat in the front row, posing nonchalantly as a member of the audience. The timing is perfect and the energy contagious enough to affect the play all the way up to its denouement.

The director’s decision to adapt and abridge Shakespeare’s text works smartly. It is a streamlined version that is clearly for the purposes of accessibility rather than any particular interpretation. To a degree, the same could be said of the 1930s twist. With Downton in vogue, the 30s is easier for a modern audience to connect with than a museum-like period drama, and it certainly avoids the clunky dangers of an average modernisation. Downton Abbey and Shakespearean verse may not have been two things I ever expected to come into contact with together, but Thacker and his ensemble play the combination with ease and style. After so many productions of Shakespeare, it is a testament to Thacker that this production is both surprising and refreshing.

By Alastair Michael

Images by Ian Tilton

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Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare. Photo credite Ian Tilton (2)What: Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare

Where: Octagon Theatre, Bolton

When: until March 22, 2014

More info: https://octagonbolton.co.uk/145/Twelfth-Night/523