Twelfth Night – a triumph at Traquair

The cross-dressing, gender and identity confusions, the hiding behind disguises, the intrepid heroine playing a boy’s part in a man’s world, the sub-plot echoing the main one – all these motifs from earlier comedies were brought to perfection in Shakespeare at Traquair’s performance of Twelfth Night, writes Ian McFadyen.

This being an age when we do allow women on the stage, young Caitlin Morris, as Viola, is a delight – not a word lost in this open setting, not a gesture overdone, and some excellent running off the ball by reacting to others as well as delivering her own lines. All in all, a well-judged mixture of the vulnerability and determination the part requires.

Michael Boyd is a big presence as Orsino. Visually, he is all deep red and black, as befits his “humour”.

He exudes an aristocratic authority, but there is always that sense of something deranged going on underneath.

Michael is one of Shakespeare at Traquair’s success stories. Apparently, he first appeared here 18 years ago as one of Puck’s followers in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

This production, too, was a wonderful induction for the many youngsters who created so enthusiastically the festive atmosphere in which the play is set.

I used to think of Olivia as rather sad and dignified, a grieving woman pestered by the persistent and mistimed attentions of Orsino and the roisterings of her drunken uncle and his train.

That is not the way Leah Moorhouse plays her at all. Dressed in mourning black, but with rather flamboyant silver stripes, she emphasises the abruptness with which Olivia surrenders her dignity to a slip of a serving boy about whom she knows nothing, desperate to take him at his word when he assures her his status is above his present fortunes.

We find a well-padded Richard Nisbet (Sir Toby Belch) in Falstaffian mode, and on great blustering form. Toby is a challenge in that he has nothing of Falstaff’s intelligence – he is as empty and vulgar as his name suggests. Outrageousness and gusto are required, and these Richard supplies in buckets. David Bon’s performance as Sir Andrew Aguecheek is a revelation. Perhaps taking his cue from his name (ague = fever) he twitches like a demented puppet, and the voice is eunuch-high and piercing. A show-stealing performance.

Maria the maid is the brain in this trio of sub-plot schemers. She is played with a splendid sense of bright-eyed mischief by Rosemary Donald. In the pairings-off that the comic denouement requires, her prize is Sir Toby. Was this her social-climbing goal? You can’t help feeling that a girl that sharp deserves better.

Feste is, in part, our guide and commentator. He is unimaginably beyond the conventional jester or “allowed fool” of some Elizabethan dramas. The performance of Paul Nicholson as Feste realised the character splendidly. He is at the centre of the play’s music, and the clarity with which he delivered his songs in the open air was remarkable.

And so we come to poor Malvolio, who is, to borrow a line from next year’s Shakespeare at Traquair, a man more sinned against than sinning.

Matt Davies, pictured top of page with Leah as Olivia, plays him dressed in black, his complexion a pallid grey. The high point of his performance for me was the discovery of the letter supposedly from Olivia proclaiming her love for him, which was played in front of the maze hedge.

The audience was close in, closer perhaps than the plotters on the other side of the hedge. I really had a sense of being one of the hidden watchers as he swallowed the bait and ran with it.

This was very impressive – and so was Malvolio’s first smile, a faked grimace that drew gasps of delight from the audience.

Those are the big players. With apologies, I am not going to attempt any more of a name-check, except to say that the show contains 26 pieces of music, 25 of them composed for the occasion, most of them by Chris Dube, some by Sarah Chapman – all of it so natural to the setting that we are in danger of taking it for granted.

The splendid musical team is just a part of the 100 or so people it takes to put this show together.

And there is a long list of organisations and individual sponsors who make it possible.

Shakespeare at Traquair has become a tradition, part of the cycle of the year, and it has won wider recognition.

Director Richard Forsyth and his team can be proud of yet another classy and intelligent production which clearly left both audience and performers with a unique sense of delight.