A warm summer evening, with sunset misting into dusk, the Downs above and the Channel stretching out to the horizon. And a classic Twelfth Night at the Italian Gardens: is there anything more English?
The Eastbourne seafront has seen open-air Shakespeare for half a century, almost uninterrupted – first the Shakespeare Society, then the Rude Mechanicals and latterly EODS themselves.
It’s a splendid tradition, and this year’s production is up with the very best of recent years.
The whole team operation is admirable: staging, seating, power, light and sound, refreshment tents, the lot.
A first-night rainstorm cleared in time, leaving a sparkling rainbow out across the sea and an almost windless evening, which always assists the actors no end.
They do say that an actor’s first duty is to be heard, and projection and clarity are excellent in this production.
First, get your casting right. Everybody in this cast slots in perfectly, looks the part and lives the character.
Twins Sebastian and Viola – two excellent newcomers in James Tomlinson and Lyla Schillinger – look uncannily alike.
Melodie Gibson, the production’s poster girl, is not only as pretty as a Tudor portrait but acts the young Countess Olivia with the poise and sensitivity of a Boleyn girl – and fortunately with a happier outcome!
For such young actresses, both Lyla and Melodie have remarkable assurance and stage presence. On this evidence, two very fine acting careers await.Shakespeare might have written the Sir Toby Belch part for the wonderfully bucolic Mike Barber, with convincing foils in Stephen Lowin’s gauche Aguecheek and Michael Shepherd’s cheery Fabian. Phil Poole rather plays down Malvolio’s eccentricities in the early scenes, but the preposterous cross-garter scenes give him better scope.
Dave Nicholls is an outstanding Feste, the wisest of fools, and sprinkling the wit and cleverness with sudden moments of genuine pathos. And canny servant Maria – expertly captured by Jane Tingley – is wiser and yet warmer than the lot of them.
There is a haughtiness about Doug Dalziel’s Duke Orsino, but we have warmed to him by the second half, and when the pairs of frustrated lovers are finally matched, they draw spontaneous applause from the audience and probably a few tears too.
The show is immaculately, sumptuously dressed and Sandra Tomlinson’s thoughtful, intelligent direction points up all the key themes.
The very first tableau has order and formality in front of elegant courtly arches – but within moments, beyond their confines, we glimpse the chaos and alarm of a shipwreck. And then the plot leads us through confused identities, disguises, gender ambiguities, capsized authority, before the symmetry is restored.
This Twelfth Night really is a splendid production: Shakespeare’s great sweep of humanity brought to life before our eyes.
Do catch it at the Italian Gardens, and be part of this fine Eastbourne tradition.
By Kevin Anderson