Twelfth Night, presented by Heartbreak Productions at the Botanical Gardens, Sheffield, 21 – 24 June 2007.

Barbara Vesey
Sheffield Hallam University

Barbara Vesey. "Twelfth Night, presented by Heartbreak Productions at the Botanical Gardens.". Early Modern Literary Studies 14.2/Special Issue 17 (September, 2008) 18.1-12 <URL:>.

    Directed by Andy Cresswell and designed by Rebecca Dawes and Lana Turnbull. Lighting by Keith Frederick. Sound by Andy Guthrie, Andy Cresswell, Dan McGarry. Music by Andy Guthrie, Andy Cresswell, Dan McGarry. Movement by Geoffrey Buckley. Edited and original concept by Peter Mimmack. With Gareth Cooper as Sir Toby Belch, Andy Cresswell as Duke Orsino/Malvolio, Samantha Dew as Olivia/Maria, Richard Gee as Sir Andrew Aguecheek/Sebastian, Dan McGarry as Feste/Antonio, and Gabrielle Matthews as Viola.

  1. The threat of a heavy downpour did not dampen the enthusiasm of Heartbreak Productions’ performance of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, staged outdoors to a large and appreciative audience on picnic blankets and folding chairs at Sheffield’s Botanical Gardens.

  2. The stage was set to resemble a funfair, with a large banner across the base of the raised proscenium reading ‘House of Obsession’ and, stage right, a mini-Ferris wheel with rather macabre rubber hands in place of seats. Music by the 80s ska band Madness poured from the speakers, while the players, strolling amid the audience before the play began, wore bowler hats (each with a rubber hand protruding from the top), black trousers, white shirts and striped ties, the shirts and trousers torn to reveal diamond-shaped cut-outs with the words ‘obsession’, ‘desire’, ‘madness’, ‘preoccupation’ and ‘fixate’ marked out in red.

  3. An informal ‘prologue’ welcomed us to ‘the world of obsession’, and we were warned that, as the players came amongst us selling programmes (or ‘case studies’, as they called them), we would be asked to divulge our own most secret desires. Certain obliging members of the audience volunteered these, which were read out before the play began – carrot cake, gardening, Manolo Blahniks among them – to general mirth. And so the scene was set for this production’s preoccupations – the overwhelming longing for power, or love, or fantasy, or vengeance – as depicted in the inhabitants of and visitors to Shakespeare’s imagined Illyria, the setting for this comedy of mistaken identities and misbegotten desires.

  4. Standing on the grass off-stage, a band of diverse instruments – flute, drums, tuba, guitar, clarinet and keyboards – struck up a tune to herald the first scene. Crocheted puppets and a toy boat were used to represent the shipwreck of Viola and her twin brother Sebastian. The mournful clarinet and sombre keyboards played as the rolling waves – created by an actor below the stage roiling beneath a blue tarpaulin – swallowed up the miniature siblings. The production then reversed Shakespeare’s opening scenes, proceeding with Viola – played engagingly by Gabrielle Matthews – emerging from the waves to enquire ‘What country, friends, is this?’, and learning of Duke Orsino’s hopeless passion for the beautiful Olivia, in mourning for the death of her brother. Only then did we see Shakespeare’s original first scene, with Orsino luxuriating in his unrequited love, asking for ‘surfeit’ of ‘music … the food of love’. Slow jazz with electric guitar and trumpet announced his entrance; he was equipped with an outrageous bright green oversized Elvis wig and was played with studied loucheness by Andy Cresswell. Cresswell also played Malvolio – tall, imposing and dressed in long, black bishop’s robes and black stovepipe hat.

  5. The other comic master-strokes of the play, Sir Toby Belch and Sir Andrew Aguecheek, were captured very well by Gareth Cooper and Richard Gee – the first all plummy vowels, distracted hair and distended belly, the other enacting not just his character’s idiocy but his innocence as well. Gee also doubled as Sebastian, acquitting himself well in a part that is, truth be told, little more than eye candy. For this is a play in which the women are, for the most part, the saner heads (with the possible exception of Olivia, though the director’s note that her obsession was her grief did not convince, and was not borne out fully in this production). Yet it is Sebastian who has the line that summed up the favoured theme of this production: ‘Are all the people mad?’

  6. Maria is the third of this comedy’s trio of women, taking the lead not just in her verbal jousts with Sir Toby and Sir Andrew, but also in the increasing cruelty toward the pompous Malvolio. She was played with sharp-tongued verve and a knowing coarseness by Samantha Dew – at one point taking Sir Andrew’s hand and placing it firmly on her breast as she said the line, ‘I pray you, bring your hand to the buttery-bar, and let it drink’. Dew also brought great fun and real sensuality to the role of Olivia, a role that can, on the page, seem that of a dull prude.

  7. Malvolio loses his austere robes, of course, in Act III, when he appears in the shockingly funny attire he has been persuaded to believe that his mistress, Olivia, prefers – in this case black-and-yellow striped stockings and black micro-shorts with a large banana ‘rampant’ where one might have expected his manhood to be.

  8. In another very winning bit of business, the street scene (Act III scene iii) between Sebastian and Antonio was populated with three of the other players, now doubling as market sellers, hawking their wares with slogans that conspired to end with the words ‘if -- music -- be -- the -- food -- of -- love’. The fight scene between the reluctant Viola/Cesario and the equally cowardly Sir Andrew was also done with wit: as the theme tune from Rocky was played on a chorus of kazoos, the two accosted each other in boxing gloves, complete with appropriate ‘pow’ sound effects whenever they landed a ‘blow’.

  9. As ever in Shakespeare, the Clown has the wisest head of all – and, in this troupe of just six actors, Dan McGarry’s Feste had to do extra duty speaking lines given to Valentine and Curio in the original text. McGarry also played Antonio. His Feste was played with gusto but at times his interpretation of the character spilled over into a slightly smug self-satisfaction.

  10. Gabrielle Matthews’ Viola was the stand-out performance amid some very fine ones: earnest, sympathetic, charming and, as the character with the most asides to the audience, the one who becomes for us the focus of events.

  11. In a production making the most of Orsino’s ‘food of love’, brass, woodwinds, simple acoustic guitar, trumpets, drums, keyboard and pre-recorded music were all used to good effect, with some of Shakespeare’s most affecting lyrics (and that’s saying something!), poignant and life-affirming, at times in this production set to music by the Beatles, at once both instantly recognisable and lending their own associations to the piece. ‘O mistress mine’, for instance, with its call to enjoy life’s pleasures in the here and now, since ‘youth’s a stuff will not endure’, was set to Lennon and McCartney’s ‘All My Lovin’.

  12. This was neither the time nor place, perhaps, for subtlety (outdoor theatre rarely is, after all). Released from his imprisonment, Malvolio’s ‘banana’ drooped mournfully, and there was enough knockabout comedy to keep even the youngest members of the audience laughing – the young and ebullient cast did not disappoint. This production more than made up for any lack of nuance with plenty of exuberance and panache.

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© 2008-, Matthew Steggle (Editor, EMLS).