Propeller’s production of Twelfth Night at Hampstead Theatre is an accomplished and immaculately presented kind of Shakespeare. The acting is superb. From Malvolio’s irresistably slappable sneer to Sir Toby Belch’s reckless debauchery, each character is so well-played that you are immediately swept up in their individual woes, tricks and trials.
Considering Twelfth Night has a plot so heavily involved in character confusion, that is an admirable feat. In part, it’s down to the clever use of a Greek-like Chorus of anonymous men on stage at all times, peering out from behind props and directing your attention and emotions towards the characters on stage.
At nearly three hours long, we thought the length might be a quibble, but the pacing of the performance quashed our worries. The dialogue is pleasantly traditional yet there are no extended soliloquys or rambling encounters here. Rather, we skip along at a jolly pace, being led from encounter to encounter with seamless interchanges.
And it really is very funny. Propeller is an all-male Shakespeare company, so while they are guaranteed a few titters from the presence of 6ft men dressed in frilly ensembles, they have stayed true to Twelfth Night’s origins as a comedy. This is mostly down to their impeccable comic timing — the scene where Malvolio ‘discovers’ the letter he believes to be written in fair Olivia’s hand almost descends into pantomime-like “he’s behind you!” as the audience struggles to contain themselves.
Yet it is not affected. The staging is simple but effective with a small selection of props being rearranged each scene, and the costumes are relatively unremarkable (apart from one notable exception*). It is the characters that really make this play.
*That notable wardrobe exception? A studded, thonged, leather jockstrap. It is the cherry on top of a seriously well-baked cake. Delicious.