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Twelfth Night is a joyous play about transformation, reconciliation and seeing familiar faces through fresh eyes – an apt choice, then, for the reopening of the Everyman Theatre, an old friend restored to the theatregoers of Liverpool after a £28m redevelopment.
It has been 50 years since the Everyman, originally a Dissenters’ chapel called Hope Hall, first opened its doors as a theatre. It then made its name as friendly, bohemian, politically engaged playhouse. But spirit alone can’t keep you going for ever and the old place had got a little, well, shabby. The challenge for architects Haworth Tompkins was to rebuild the theatre for the 21st century while keeping its distinct character.
At the opening night of the new place, Gemma Bodinetz, the Everyman’s artistic director outlined the principles that guided the new design. “We wanted to keep the renegade spirit and idiosyncrasy,” she said. Steve Tompkins, the architect, put it even more simply: “It had to feel like home.”
And it does. The three elements of the old building that everyone deemed to be non-negotiable – the neon sign, the thrust stage and the easy-going bistro – are all in place. But where the previous entrance was cramped, the new front of house is welcoming and expansive: glassed walls and balconies bridge the gap between outside and inside, making the most of the theatre’s location on Hope Street, between the city’s two cathedrals. There is a spacious bar and a café, as well as the snug basement bistro. The place is airy, unpretentious and easy to use, equipped with new backstage facilities, and the building’s long, flat façade is now adorned with a huge metal frieze decorated with portraits of 105 local citizens: an attractive reinforcement of the theatre’s name.
The auditorium itself achieves a warm feeling thanks to the open brickwork (25,000 bricks from the original chapel keep continuity with the past), the distinctive bronze velvet seats and the pronounced thrust stage, which wraps the audience around three sides. It is a challenge to design for, and Bodinetz and her designer Laura Hopkins wisely keep sets to a minimum in Twelfth Night.
This is a warm, buoyant staging of Shakespeare’s comedy about shipwreck in Illyria, that strange country (or perhaps state of mind) where obsessive love drives characters into distraction, and excess – be it an excess of love, drink or zeal – leads to trouble.
Bodinetz’s modern-dress production involves everyone in the madness. When Sir Toby Belch (a whiskery and incorrigible Matthew Kelly), Sir Andrew Aguecheek (an unusually diminutive knight from Adam Keast) and Maria (Pauline Daniels, excellent) start whooping it up late at night, they encourage mischief and raucous song from the audience.
Jodie McNee makes a lovely Viola: disguised as Cesario, she has a boyish frankness that is disarming and works like a charm on Natalie Dew’s Olivia, who drops her studious mourning like a stone to fall giddily in love. Their performances are full of witty, revealing details – as is that of Nicholas Woodeson’s superb Malvolio, a prissy little man equipped with shiny shoes, a referee’s whistle and an imperious manner. He is absurdly funny when tricked, poignant on realising his mistake and disturbing as he swears revenge on not just the characters, but the audience too.
Not everything gels: some of the comic scenes feel a little forced, audibility is sometimes a problem, and Adam Levy struggles to animate Duke Orsino. I’ve seen productions that mine the play’s mysteries to more rewarding effect. But Paul Duckworth’s slinkily androgynous clown Feste draws out the unsettling tones in the story, and the reunion of Viola with her brother is both very funny and suddenly moving, as it should be. Old acquaintance renewed: a fresh start for all.
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