Tim Hughes raises a glass of rough cider to this grungy traveler-site production of Shakespeare's Twelfth Night

  • Twelfth Night
  • Oxford Shakespeare Company
  • Wadham College, Oxford

ONE can’t move in Oxford this summer, without bumping into a group of actors staging Shakespeare in an unlikely setting. Throw a codpiece in any direction and you’ll most likely clobber a wide-eyed thespian, clasping their heart, delivering a soliloquy to rows of tourists – and the odd local.

Some stand out from the rest though, and principal among this summer’s crop is the Oxford Shakespeare Company’s production of Twelfth Night.

Staged in the lovely garden of Wadham College, one might expect yet another pretty run-through of this terrific comedy. Such thoughts are dispelled from the off, with the audience greeted by a scene more reminiscent of Glastonbury (back when it used to be cool) or a gathering of what used to be known as the Peace Convoy. A group of tattooed, scruffy and apparently boozed-up new age travellers in soiled, but pretty cool, garb are playing gypsy folk in front of something that perhaps ought to be a gypsy caravan, but looks more like a mutant beach hut.

Such dislocation continues as the play starts. Orsino, the Duke of Illyria, is striding around, bare-chested in a hippyish gown, pronouncing his love for the Countess Olivia.

Orsino – played with adrenaline-fuelled passion by David Orsino – is a heartthrob for the broken generation, and leads a production which speaks to us, in all its bawdy, sozzled fun, as the Bard would surely have intended.

The love interest comes in the form of Viola (the pretty, twinkle-eyed Alice Coles), as girly a girl can be – but who must dress as a man to become the Duke’s servant. And that’s where the hilarity, misunderstanding and sexual confusion begins. Volia – now calling ‘himself’ Cesario - is dispatched by the Duke to woo the Countess on his behalf... only, gasp!, the good lady Olivia falls for him...or rather her!

It’s a cracking tale, though one which, if you are unfamiliar with the convoluted plot, requires regular reference to the excellent potted synopsis.

Old Illyria (covering what is modern day Croatia) would have been as foreign to audiences in the Bard’s day as gypsy/traveller life is to the kind of people likely to find themselves chuckling at Shakespeare at Wadham. It’s an exotic blank canvas, and the OSC under the direction of the hugely-respected Nicholas Green milk its possibilities in all their grungy, cyber-punk, post-apocalyptic glory.

It would have been all too easy to have taken the easy route and set it in a clichéd gypsy milieu; similarly to have jumped into that anarchic hippy/traveller world. What Green has done, though, is take elements from each, and more besides, to create his own alternative Illyria – one whose residents are desperately in need of a good bath.

That said, the set would have benefitted from either a proper gypsy caravan, grungy mobile home or even a yurt instead of the cute hut which served as Olivia’s home – which looked more like one of those twee ‘glamping’ constructions which upper-middle class festival-goers pay a fortune to sleep in when if they can’t be bothered pitching a tent. Heavens, it didn’t even have wheels. Or maybe that was the point.

If there is criticism it is that the general dressing down made it harder to follow. The count and countess appear no richer nor gamorous than anyone else – more like heroin addicts than aristocrats. And Feste (the brilliant Robert Madeley) looks no more like a clown than the rest of the players. And, sorry, but Malvolio's stockings were certainly not the customary yellow.

The acting throughout, though, was first-class. A grungy William Findlay, in particular giving a high-octane performance as Olivia’s drunken uncle – the comic master creation Sir Toby Belch; his witty wordplay fitting seamlessly into the knockabout world of the Illyrian traveller site, as befits one of Shakespeare’s funniest characters. Indeed he seems made for the role.

Similarly the aforementioned Coles as Viola – in all her brow-creased torment, intrigue and ultimate joy. She is quite simply wonderful.

The play ends, as it starts, with the ensemble cooking up some fine gypsy folk, in a score written specially by none other than Nick Lloyd Webber – son of Andrew – which is nice.

This Twelfth Night is up there as a cultural highlight of the summer. See it you must – even if just for the music.

* Twelfth Night continues at wadham College until August 15. Here for details...