Twelfth Night @ Theatre Royal

Image by Manuel Harlan

Image by Manuel Harlan

“If music be the food of love, play on”. One of the most famous opening lines in the western canon, so frequently quoted; yet I have never heard these words said with such despair. Propeller’s all-male performance of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night surprised me from the start and went on to repeatedly defy my expectations.

I was immediately struck by the opening scene which presented Orsino (Christopher Heyward) – disheveled in his attire, bare-footed and clutching a half empty bottle of wine – his lamenting speech underscored by beautifully haunting music. However, this scene of despair was soon replaced by the highly entertaining episodes one hopes to find in a Shakespearean comedy. The juxtaposition between scenes of jest and hilarity and those of pain and loss gave the play great effect and created a thoroughly enjoyable and engaging atmosphere within the theatre. Commendations must be given to actors Liam O’Brien (Feste), Vince Leigh (Sir Toby Belch) and John Dougall (Sir Andrew Aguecheek) whose antics had the audience in fits of laughter.

However, the most encapsulating performances were those of the men playing women. Never having seen a Shakespeare play performed by an all-male cast, this was an interesting spectacle for me. Outstanding performances were given by Joseph Chance (Viola) and Gary Shelford (Maria); however, it was the performance of Ben Allen as Olivia that really won me over.  Although these actors’ costumes consisted of dresses and makeup, they wore no wigs or other garments in an attempt to make them look entirely female. In appearance, therefore, they were obviously men; yet the female mannerisms, so skilfully enacted by the cross-dressing cast members, were so convincing that this was easily forgotten. Furthermore, the slight campness which permeated these performances only added to the comedic effect.

The sound and music within this production were created almost entirely by the cast members on the stage and were therefore one of the most creative attributes of the performance.  The actors used a range of instruments, vocal sounds and items, such as a wine glass, to create sound effects and underscore the play. The play was also interspersed with songs, both jovial and haunting, primarily sung by Liam O’Brien (Feste) whose rich tones were a joy to hear.

Costume was relatively modern with the men in tailored suits and the women in dresses, tights and heels, were sleek, subtle and effective, adding to the performance without distracting from it. However, I can’t finish this review without mentioning Malvolio’s yellow, cross-gartered stockings and studded, leather codpiece which were truly spectacular!

I had heard great reviews about this company from fellow English students and theatre lovers however Propeller really did exceed my expectations. I would strongly recommend this performance of Twelfth Night and will be raving about it to anyone who will listen! For those theatre and Shakespeare enthusiasts it will provide a new, interesting and witty approach to a classic. However, for those who are somewhat wary of such plays, this production has the potential to completely change the way you perceive Shakespeare.

Emily Heathcote

Propeller’s Twelfth Night will be performed Thursday 30th May at 2pm and 7.30pm, and Saturday 1st June at 7.30pm at Theatre Royal, Nottingham.

Taming of the Shrew, will be performed by the same company Friday 31st May 7.30pm and Saturday 1st June 2pm, also at Theatre Royal. 

For ticket information go to:

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