Paul Ready as Benedick and Ellie Piercy (c) Manchester Royal Exchange
I was very lucky to see two excellent Shakespeare productions recently. The first was Twelfth Night at the newly refurbished Liverpool Everyman and the second was Much Ado About Nothing at the Manchester Royal Exchange. Both productions were directed by women, Much Ado About Nothing by Maria Aberg and Twelfth Night by Gemma Bodinetz and were fresh interpretations of the text that brought new readings to the plays. Both [productions used colour and the space in interesting ways, and as an audience member I was captivated by both productions, feeling included and involved.
The production of Twelfth Night was rather dramatic and was an echo of David Farr’s 2012 RST production when the Captain (Paul Duckworth) and Viola (jodie McNee) are spewed out of water which was in a tank under the stage. However, the Liverpool Everyman version was much more effective. The entrance was surprising, but subtle. The pool from which they appeared became a mirror, and there was no teasing who was going to fall in as there was throughout Farr’s production. Viola and the Captain are both thrown on stage together. It’s a moment that becomes incredibly significant at the very end of the production.
It was the attention to detail that made this production work. For example, Orsino’s court can be rather dull, but in the Liverpool Everyman production, flowers descending from the flies gave a sense of pleasure and decadence. I really believed that this Orsino (Adam Levy)was in love. Antonio (David Rubin) made you very aware of Antonio’s presence through the play and emphasised his desire for Sebastian.
What both productions used very effective stage business to introduce minor characters early on, so there was a clear rationale for them being in the households. In Twelfth Night, Fabian snored up stage, and in Much Ado About Nothing, the priest had been invited to the masked ball.
Both plays explored Gender. Twelfth Nightis a play about Gender swapping, but the play explored this with Feste transforming into a Boy George figure.
The Much Ado About Nothing director, Maria Aberg, is know for her interesting exploration of gender portrayals, having cast Pippa Nixon as the female bastard in her recent RSC As You Like It, and King John where she cast Pippa Nixon as a female bastard.
At the end of the production we realise that the Captain and Viola share a secret. it was an incredible moment.
There was a dance at the end , which was incredible. It really worked to comment on the play, rather than feel like it was an add on.
When the awards are usually dominated by Shakespeare productions seen in London, and the What’s On Stage Award is won by the lack lustre Michael Grandage A Midsummer Night’s Dream, looking in a different direction can produce very high quality Shakespeare productions.
Paul Duckworth as Feste Photo by James Maloney