Arrows & Traps Shakespeare Rep – Twelfth Night and Othello Review

Upstairs at the Gatehouse 1 – 19 November.  Reviewed by Claire Roderick

Take it from me, if the sign says “Arrows & Traps Theatre Company presents…” you are in for a theatrical treat. With a fantastic track record of innovative Shakespeare productions, this repertory season presents Twelfth Night and Othello, two very different plays, but both dealing with the chaos of falling in love.

The same set is used for each production, and director Ross McGregor has made the most of The Gatehouse’s wide stage, with specific areas – a garden, a bedroom and a third versatile space for town/fight scenes. This means that scenes and speeches can be intercut seamlessly by a lighting change, rather than characters exiting and entering, and maintains the narrative pace effectively.

Twelfth Night sees shipwrecked Viola landing in Illyria, thinking her twin, Sebastian, has drowned. Disguising herself as Cesario, she goes to Duke Orsino’s court and becomes his agent in his romantic pursuit of Olivia. But Olivia falls in love with Cesario, who in turn loves Orsino. Meanwhile, Olivia’s uncle and his friends plot the downfall of priggish Malvolio, Olivia’s steward, by convincing him that Olivia is in love with him.

Shakespeare’s bawdy comedy is given a deliciously earthy treatment, with the lustful longings of the characters played with relish by the cast. Making Antonio (Spencer Lee Osborne) and Sebastian’s (Alex Stevens) relationship sexual brings a fresh angle to the play, giving Sebastian a more mercenary and less heroic outlook than usual, and both actors bring a subtle sensitivity to their roles. Pearce Sampson’s foppish Orsino moons amusingly after Olivia, but his attraction towards Cesario culminates in abruptly ending wrestling matches that are delightfully played by Sampson and Pippa Caddick – a fantastically feisty performance toying with body language and gender expectations. Cornelia Baumann’s Olivia just needs to get laid in a great comic performance, and Adam Elliott manages to gain the audiences sympathy as uptight Malvolio – making him not just a social climber, but showing true feelings towards Olivia. Tom Telford and David Grace, as Sir Toby and Sir Andrew make a great comic duo, with definite shades of Laurel and Hardy, ably assisted by Elle Banstead-Salim as Maria. These three actors excel in physical comedy, and steal every scene they’re in. Lloyd Warbey gives Feste, the fool who hides his wisdom behind dreadful wordplay, just the right hint of world weary cynicism, and is devastatingly good revealing his unrequited love for Maria by singing songs by The Proclaimers and The Police. The musical theme that repeats throughout the play is haunting and Pascal Magdrier’s arrangements of modern and Shakespearean songs around the melody is clever and engaging.

Full of deft and daft comedy and engagingly performed, this production manages to breathe new life into Twelfth Night, allowing the company to bring their comedic talent to the fore. Fantastic.

Othello isn’t quite such a barrel of laughs. Othello, a Moorish general in the Venetian army marries Desdemona, who is disowned by her family. The promotion of Cassio puts Iago’s nose out of joint and, already convinced that Othello has bedded his own wife, he plots Othello’s downfall and the murder of Cassio.

To be honest, I always thought Othello was a huge prat with sociopathic tendencies, but Spencer Lee Osborne gives the character a hugely sympathetic vulnerability. This Othello, confident and self-assured in military matters, cannot seem to believe that someone like Desdemona could ever really want him. His gullibility and suggestibility under the onslaught of Iago’s lies are completely credible as you watch Osborne’s quivering lip and fidgeting fingers. This is a true man-child that just doesn’t know how to cope with a strong woman, making his sudden violent outbursts even more shocking. Pearce Sampson gives Iago a Northern charm, but quickly allows the audience glimpses of his bitter and malicious mind. His asides to the audience come as the other actors freeze, which is most effective during the attack on Cassio. Pippa Caddick’s Desdemona is flirty and assertive, and she handles Desdemona’s growing confusion and disbelief convincingly without histrionics. Cornelia Baumann’s Emilia is largely silent, finding her voice and strength as the deception unfolds in a wonderfully nuanced performance. As Cassio, Adam Elliott is true officer material, and the moment he shares with Osborne in the final scene just took my breath away.

The fights are balletic rather than realistic, and the climatic sequence of movement involving the whole cast as Othello strangles Desdemona, while not quite reaching the emotional intensity of the company’s portrayal of the death of Macbeth earlier this year, is wistfully magical and almost cinematic.

Any company that can make me tell my friends to go and see Othello – my least favourite Shakespeare play – must be something special. I bored my friends silly raving about this production!