“Lunatic! Like nothing I’ve seen before. Rough; really rough—in the best possible way.” This was the response of adaptor and director, Toby Hulse, to a run-through on the fifth day of three weeks of rehearsals of this production of Twelfth Night. The play was adapted by Hulse and performed by students on the BA Acting course at Bristol Old Vic Theatre School, touring mainly to primary schools during February 2012. To fit this cohort of second year acting students, the play had been adapted specifically for six performers with doubling of Orsino and Malvolio, and Andrew and Sebastian.
“Rough” is an appropriate word for this work and one that Hulse used extensively. He thereby acknowledged a subconscious debt to “rough theatre” as described by Peter Brook in The Empty Space, and described the first week of rehearsals as: “getting a rough sketch, to determine where it was going.” Hulse took the cast through the script chronologically, asking them to play their way through the action; calling on them to produce tableaux scenes to introduce the action, the characters introduced in snapshots including an identifying line of text, and to portray the storm that has shipwrecked Viola and Sebastian on Illyria.
The adaptation was a heavily edited, hour-long romp through the play, excluding entirely the sub-plot of Sebastian and Antonio. The action emphasized clear storytelling, comedy and entertainment and was rich in songs and music—the cast accompanying themselves with guitar, ukulele and assorted percussion. The setting was, broadly, an English sea-side scene during the 1950s—but this atmosphere was conveyed only loosely through costuming and whatever props were brought on to the stage: deckchairs, buckets, spades and a picnic hamper. The comedy was visual and physical rather than verbal, and drew on an end-of-the-pier Music Hall tradition, rather than any recognizable Shakespearean aesthetic. In rehearsal, it was almost as if each scene was a new Music Hall turn, and this became most clear in the exchange in which Feste attempted to prove Olivia a fool. Hulse rehearsed this explicitly as a Music Hall routine, [End Page 573] adding straw boaters and a clear rhythmic exchange, coaching the actors in the appropriate technique and timing.
The representation of the twins accentuated the production’s visual comedy through metatheatrical means. Bebe Sanders, playing Viola, has vibrant red hair and the rehearsal process drew on this, changing the scripted: “we’ve got the same costume” to “we have the same hair” and having Adam Collier make the change from Sir Andrew to Sebastian by the addition of a poorly fitting red wig. Such adaptation to material circumstances and the talents available in the cast is characteristic of Hulse’s work. Similarly, Viola’s disguise as Cesario was foregrounded for obvious comic effect, being achieved through her wearing a cheap, plastic false nose, glasses and moustache set. On Sebastian’s entrance, Feste, in her role of storyteller, asked him to assume the same ‘disguise’ just because it fitted.
Such emphasis on metatheatre acknowledged the audience for this production from the outset. In the rehearsal room, Hulse became the piece’s first audience and he was a model of it. He both emulated a primary-school-aged audience by sitting on the floor, close to the action, and provided positive feedback, responding with the expectancy, delight and genuine enthusiasm that he hoped the performance would engender in young children. Hulse plainly saw this as an important part of the director’s role, telling the actors that they had made ninety-five percent of the decisions and that he was merely laughing in the right places. Hulse certainly did laugh in all the right places—uproariously for the most part. His approach to directing was to gently facilitate, encourage, prompt and guide his young cast in an exploration of...