It begins with the iconic soliloquy “If music be the food of love, play on.” The famous passage from Twelfth Night is probably as well known as the “To Be or Not to Be” soliloquy from Hamlet, or the “When Shall We Three Meet Again” witches’ cackling speech from Macbeth.

And the all-male Propeller Theatre company do play on. For almost three hours the stage at The Lowry Theatre in Salford was filled with their voices and instruments (some makeshift, some conventional). It was a marathon production in terms of length, yet it never dragged.

The music is created by conventional instruments such as drums, clarinets and strings which are accompanied by other, more unusual methods. The top of a brandy glass is circled with a finger to create a haunting noise, and there’s the xylophone formed partly of coat hangers.

A chorus of strange masked actors add to the music with acapella – which has a similar effect on me as choral music: goose bumps. The masked male actors (or Fauste’s Zanies) are a constant backdrop on the monochrome set. They are silent observers to proceedings, yet they are far from passive, as they usually are making some form of noise or sound effect, imitating the sound of bird song at one point.

In the programme, Roger Warren who adapted the text with director Edward Hall, talks of the ambitiously erotic play. This sentiment is definitely reflected in the energy of the bawdy production that captures the whirligig of the work.

The play has a dark underbelly when Feste torments Malvolio shutting him in a darkened room and trying to drive him mad.

Shakespeare was at the height of the powers when he wrote Twelfth Night in 1601, at around the same time he wrote Hamlet. He was also the father of twins, Judith and Hamnet; his son had died at the age of 11 a few years before he wrote Twelfth Night. It tells the tragic comedy of twin brother and sister Viola and Sebastian who are separated through a shipwreck.

Warren says Feste the Fool (played splendidly by the talented Liam O’Brien) was not merely a revenger; he seems to encapsulate the whole tone of the play. Feste compares Orsino’s mind to an opal, a gem that changes in the light.

The set is all smoke and mirrors. The audience is confronted by grey cloud, grey drapes and mirrored wardrobes. An upended chandelier is at centre stage and is hauled into place as Feste walks through the auditorium and onto the stage.

The reflective wardrobes seem important as characters literally disappear and reappear there and, at one stage, drunkenly puke into the wardrobe. Feste holds up mirrors to the other characters; uncovering Viola’s disguise and criticising the Duke of Illyria, Orsino, for his love sick melancholy.

There’s the love that Orsino (Christopher Heyward) has for the male Cesario (Joseph Chance), who’s actually the twin Viola in disguise as a man. The fact that a male actor is playing Viola adds an extra dimension to this Shakespearian subterfuge.JosephChance(Viola)andBenAllen(Olivia)inPropeller'sTwelfthNigh...

Vain Malvolio (expertly played by Chris Myles) is tricked by servant Maria (the equally brilliant Gary Shelford in pencil skirt and patent heels) into wooing Olivia, but Maria persuades him to smile a lot, wear yellow stockings and cross breeches – all things Olivia hates.

Propeller interprets this with Malvolio wearing yellow fishnet tights and a leather studded codpiece which led to much guffawing from the first night audience.

Propeller has revived its two successes of a few years ago, alternating with Taming of The Shrew. There have been previous single gender Shakespeare performances, such as the all-woman Julius Caesar at the Donmar Theatre in London.

The show was designed by Michael Pavelka and expertly lit by Ben Ormerod, tapping into the faded grandeur of country houses with the fallen furniture. Michael Pavelka describes how “the image of home, something we cherish and regard as a sanctuary, provides a scenic framework.” He says the Zanies’ clothes could be “equally at home in a Tarantino movie.”

I took my teenage daughter and she, too, giggled at Malvolio, and found the play to be mesmerising and amusing in equal measure. Judging by the three encores amid raucous applause, it seems the rest of the audience agreed with this assessment.

Review by Helen Carter 


What: Twelfth Night

Where: The Lowry Theatre, Salford

When: until April 13, 2013

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