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Review: Grosvenor Park Open Air Theatre
3:24pm Friday 3rd August 2012 in What's on in Lancashire
GROSVENOR Park Open Air Theatre in Chester runs until August 19.
The greatest open air theatre experience outside London.
Over 46 days and balmy nights this coming summer you have the chance to find out why Grosvenor Park – the only full time professional open air theatre company outside the capital – is making such a splash.
Enjoy delightful productions of Shakespeare’s favourite comedy Twelfth Night and a brand new sequel Masters Are You Mad, The Search for Malvolio. Children can also enjoy dressing up in our many theatrical costumes, taking a ‘sneak peak’ back stage.
By Liz Ryan
“Sometimes he is a kind of puritan,” spits Maria in that pivotal scene when she’s finally had enough of the jumped-up Malvolio.
It isn’t meant as a compliment. At the turn of the 17th century, the Puritan sect of the Anglican Church was on the rise. Obsessed with a literal – albeit selective -- interpretation of the Bible, and holding to strict ideas about social order, they thought the only thing wrong with the English Reformation was that it didn’t go far enough. They also disapproved of public performance. Shakespeare the playwright mostly kept his personal grievances hidden. But, closet Catholic and sexually ambiguous, it’s safe to assume the Puritans were not his favourite kind of people.
This might explain the savagery with which the Countess Olivia’s chief of staff is treated in what is supposed to be a romantic comedy. Twelfth Night has, over the years, acquired the label of Shakespeare’s ‘gender-bending’ play. But whilst, in this day and age, we can celebrate the fluidity with which he approaches gender boundaries – girl dressed as a boy, who’s really a boy actor playing a girl and so on – we have a bit more trouble with the fate of the poor, put-upon steward, and his destruction at the hands of a bunch of worthless aristocrats.
The novelist Angela Carter once wrote that “the greatest genius of the Puritans lay in their ability to sniff out a pagan survival,” and in Shakespeare’s day the Twelfth Night celebration of the eve of Epiphany was certainly that. So the task facing director Alex Clifton is to render Malvolio an unmournable hypocrite and Sir Toby Belch and his crew a collection of lovable rogues; defenders of an older England of life-affirming festivity.
Fortunately, the theatre’s location, in Chester’s rambling Grosvenor Park, is an appropriately bucolic setting for this less-than-innocent celebration of the regrettable English tendency towards drunken bacchanalia, and Jack Lord, as Sir Toby, has the ponderous civility of a man who has thoughtfully resolved to spend the rest of his life deep in his cups. Young Scott Arthur’s energetic portrayal of the upper-class nincompoop Sir Andrew Aguecheek seems, hilariously, to be modelled on Prince Harry -- at the time of writing, he remains in the cast and has not been removed to The Tower.
There’s intelligence, too, in the choice of Victoria Gee to play the lady-in-waiting Maria. Her broad Yorkshire tones bring depth to a tough character whose rendition on the page can make her seem heartless, as it’s her scheming that brings Malvolio down from his perch. Meanwhile Matthew Rixon, oblivious to his nemesis, struts around like a sinister cockerel, and his sudden appearance in a pair of bright yellow, criss-crossed stockings remains what it always was – the best sight gag in the show.
Finally, Krupa Pattani and Haseeb Malik do very well as the almost identical twins, and their Asian ethnicity is a masterstroke, its contemporary resonance reminding us that the shipwrecked pair confront real dangers on a potentially hostile foreign shore.
Masters Are You Mad, The Search for Malvolio
Shakespeare created some notable villains, but from time to time he challenges us with a character (Shylock, Caliban) who is supposed to be a bad guy but leaves us wondering uncomfortably how we would have behaved ourselves, in the circumstances.
Malvolio, the ambitious steward in Twelfth Night, belongs to the second category. The victim of a cruel practical joke, designed to bring him back into social line, his departing words are a snarl: “I’ll be revenged on the whole pack of you.”
Poet Glyn Maxwell has taken this bad-tempered exit – singularly jarring at the conclusion of what is supposed to be a romantic comedy -- as an invitation. Masters Are You Mad: The Search For Malvolio, opens 12 years later, with the land of Illyria in ruins as all her youngsters follow a mysterious siren call and make their way upriver.
It’s an enticing scenario, albeit a dark one: the wounded servant gathering his forces together in some magical hinterland. And the trees and bushes of Chester’s Grosvenor Park do good service as an enchanted forest. In dribs and drabs, some familiar characters find their excuses to make their way upstream, and Maxwell, writing with this venue in mind, is careful to keep the tone lyrical, humorous and absurd. Imagine Apocalypse Now, or indeed Joseph Conrad’s Heart Of Darkness, in a version by Lewis Carroll and you won’t go far wrong.
Since its opening three years ago, Grosvenor Park Open Air Theatre has positioned itself as “the northern alternative to Shakespeare’s Globe”, and to this end, an A-team of theatre professionals has been assembled. So the production looks delicious, and it is snappily directed by the Olivier Award-winning Robin Norton-Hale. Maxwell’s lines are frequently very funny, and a talented cast has been coached into some exquisite pratfalls. Chris Vincent as an officious Harbourmaster (“we may’ve seen better times but we do have standards”) was a particular joy, in his battle of wits with Haseeb Malik’s resentful, deeply incompetent assassin.
But drama is an unforgiving medium, and what gives scenes their interest is underlying conflict. This is, at heart, the story of a quest, and any encounters which our heroes (and two heroines, one cross-dressed) had with the forest’s crackpot denizens should have been as mini-obstacles ahead of the main showdown. Yet time and again, they were revealed as too locked up in private worlds of madness to pose any riddles or act as effective monsters.
To be fair, the jokes came sufficiently thick and fast that most of the audience, surrounded by the debris of their picnics on a pleasant summer evening, seemed happy enough to wait out the interludes of incomprehensibility until the next bit of clowning. And the production definitely had its fans amongst those who were busy spotting and decoding the Twelfth Night references. But a lot of rushing about does not always mean there’s a lot going on, and there were plenty of moments when the script was prematurely satisfied with its own self-referencing, inter-textual cleverness.
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