Royal Exchange Theatre; Thursday 20th April 2017.
A pimped-up shopping trolley with party balloons and flashing fairy lights; an electric guitar and amplifier; an obscenely tight-fitting cycling onesie, a traffic cone – probably not the kind of memories you’d expect to be walking away with after watching Shakespeare, but those are the only summary visions that endured in the mind after watching Director Jo Davies’ Twelfth Night being performed at Manchester’s Royal Exchange Theatre.
This is not intended as a criticism of the performance. The cast, crew, director etc. are not to blame here: there is an underlying problem which is that productions of Shakespeare are like the prison food of UK theatre – it is nearly always just the same old shit again and again, nobody can explain why, but the prison officers of culture insist it’s good for you. So when something ever so slightly different or unusual happens, that is what ends up lingering in the mind above and beyond the mediocrity you have reluctantly learnt to endure.
And so it was at HMP The Royal Exchange. As with most of Britain’s prison system, the place was packed with the scum of the Earth, convicts like me: all of us prisoners from a young age who’ve been told that Shakespeare will make you a better person. For Twelfth Night, the sentence to be served exceeded three hours, with inmates being given one 20-minute run-around in the prison yard. That’s long for any play, but in the prison culture that surrounds theatrical Shakespeare in the UK, that’s a relatively minor concern. The usual problem of Shakespearian performance reared its ugly head – actors speaking far too quickly in what might as well be a foreign tongue. Given the length of the sentence being served, I’m risking getting my arse kicked for advocating a slower pace, but some of the speech was just impossible to follow and, in some cases, quite difficult to hear too, worsened by the fact that the Royal Exchange’s circular stage tended to lead to inevitable instances where performers had their backs to you when they spoke.
To be fair the overall performance was, actually, quite good – it was a perfectly well executed play: a nice-looking set; a strong cast; some good acting (on the few occasions where they slowed down their script recital enough to allow acting to actually take place); and some very good live music performances.
But, crucially, it’s nothing more than just another safe plateful of the usual stodge coming out of the prison kitchen. There was nothing particularly interesting or different – we all wanted the Mr Big in the prison showers kind of thrill but we never got it.
In the prison-kitchen landscape that is Shakespearian theatre, if you’re going to cook something up you had better make it interesting, otherwise why bother? Especially as most inmates will one day serve their sentence, leave the prison, try lots of sexy new dishes on the outside and vow that they’ll never go back to eating that old crap again.