Caro Meets Musicals & Opera Interview Theatre Interview

Adam Nichols: Twelfth Night

By | Published on Friday 19 April 2019

I’m pretty sure most of you will have seen a production of ‘Twelfth Night’ at some point, and some of you may have seen many, but here’s one production of the Shakespeare classic that I reckon you should make time for, not least because it’s set on a cruise liner in the roaring twenties.

It’s the work of the excellent St Alban’s based OVO theatre company, currently on tour, and bringing the play to London’s Rose Playhouse this week. I spoke to director Adam Nichols to find out more.

CM: I doubt there’s anyone out there who is ignorant of the plot of ‘Twelfth Night’… but can you tell us a bit about your approach to the production? I know your version sets it in an interesting time and location, but is it otherwise the same story?
AN: In addition to the distinctive music, we’ve set the play on a cruise liner, rather than an island. We’ve also played with the gender of several characters – Sir Toby Belch becomes Lady Toby, Malvolio is Malvolia and Feste is a girl rather than a boy. Our talented troupe of actor musicians have the ability to belt out a tune just as well as delivering a soliloquy with poise and beauty.

CM: Can you explain the setting, and the time you have set the play in? What made you decide to do this?
AN: For OVO it is never enough to impose a theme on a Shakespeare play for purely aesthetic reasons. Setting has to emerge from the characters, their situations and the words they speak. In the case of ;Twelfth Night’, a number of the play’s main themes suggested the 1920s. In the Elizabethan period, ‘Twelfth Night’ was the climax of the festive season. It was celebrated with music, elaborate fancy-dress masked balls, misrule and general revelry. The roaring twenties were also a time of jubilation and hedonism. For the ‘Bright Young Things’ from the aristocracy and wealthier classes, life had never been better. Our use of jazz music in this production reflects the hedonism and wild abandon of many of the characters in the play.

Another key theme of the play is gender and sexuality. It’s incredibly radical for its time, suggesting that gender is something you can influence, based on how you act, rather than something that you are. The 1920s arguably saw as much of a sexual revolution as the sixties with flappers, a thriving and prominent gay culture and androgynous women’s fashion. So the play and the period seem to complement one another very well.

CM: This is a musical version of the play – what kind of music can we expect?
AN: Our mission is to make Shakespeare accessible without dumbing it down, and we think that Britney, Rihanna and Radiohead can bring ‘Twelfth Night to life in much the same way that Shakespeare borrowed sixteenth century pop songs to appeal to the groundlings. I love the way that Postmodern Jukebox have fused traditional jazz genres with modern songs, and that style feels wholly appropriate for this play.

CM: How do you think the musical element and more recent setting benefit the play? 
AN: Twelfth Night is possibly the most musical of all Shakespeare’s plays. Although ‘As You Like It’ contains one more song (7 in total), ‘Twelfth Night’ feels more musical in its bones, beginning (of course) with one of the most famous lines in stage history – “If music be the food of love, play on!”. So however you choose to stage the play, music will always be an essential part of bringing it to an audience. OVO is a company of actor musicians and our reputation has been built on using music to make Shakespeare accessible.

CM: Why did you decide to do staging of Twelfth Night in particular? Is it a favourite for you? What do you like about it? 
AN: First and foremost, I have a great love of the play. Given that it’s classed as a comedy – and it is genuinely funny – it has an amazingly dark underbelly, which I think gives it incredible pathos. Secondly, an opportunity to revisit a play that I’ve directed before (11 years ago), which I haven’t done too many times. There’s always more to discover in any Shakespeare play, and I love the moments of surprise in the rehearsal process when you suddenly hear a reference or connection that hasn’t revealed itself before.

CM: Can you tell us a bit about your cast, and how their perspectives inform the production?
AN: This has been a fantastic cast to work with, each and every one of whom has demonstrated what I love most about OVO – the spirit of collaboration that infuses our work both on and off stage. We’ve created an organic, freewheeling kind of process which requires enormous bravery on behalf of the actors – to start with a blank sheet of paper, to take ownership of the play for themselves and to put up with endless tweaking and changing, even after previews are over and the run has begun. It’s a tireless culture, but I think a happy and contented one.

CM: Can you tell us about OVO Theatre? How did it come together, and what are its aims/ethos? 
AN: OVO is an award winning theatre company established in 2002. We have produced more than 60 shows over the past 17 years, gaining a reputation for innovative, imaginative and inspiring theatre.

We present a year round repertory programme at the Maltings Arts Theatre, our home in St Albans. We also appear regularly at other theatres both locally and nationally and have, in recent years, toured our productions to London, Stratford upon Avon and Edinburgh, and presented our work at spectacular open air venues including the Minack Theatre in Cornwall (where, in 2016, we won the award for best production of the season) and the Roman Theatre of Verulamium in St Albans.

OVO definitely has a mission to entertain, but we also want people to leave our performances having been provoked in some way. Shakespeare’s writing is a gift for any Director to work with. But hopefully he’d approve of what we’re doing to make his plays accessible and entertaining.

CM: What plans does the company have for the future? 
AN: We’re in the process of establishing a year round repertory model at the Maltings Arts Theatre, our home in St Albans. And we want to start transferring more of our work into London. On a personal level, I’m keen to prove that there’s a sustainable model for excellent contemporary theatre that doesn’t rely on public subsidy.

CM: What’s coming up next, after this London run?
AN: Our Spring season continues at the Maltings Arts Theatre in St Albans with a modern reworking of The Changeling, followed by Contractions by Mike Bartlett. Then we are producing a three week open air theatre festival at the Roman Theatre of St Albans in June and July featuring, amongst other plays, Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet and Much Ado About Nothing.

‘Twelfth Night’ is performed at The Rose Playhouse from 23 Apr-3 May, head right this way for info and to book.

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