THEATRE / Fringe: Everything under the sun

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The Independent Culture
Shaking up Shakespeare is a hazardous business. Get it right and you might offer a valid fresh interpretation of a text, get it wrong and you could smother it in forced topicality. Phil Willmott's Illyria (Finborough, SW10) falls into the first category. A cheeky and intelligent reworking of Twelfth Night, it tweaks the text to bring the play's themes of cross- dressing, mismatched lovers and unrequited desire into even sharper relief.

Subtitling his version 'A fantasy of Shakespeare's Twelfth Night', Willmott sets the comedy within a framework that lends an extra poignancy to the story. Entering the theatre, we see a quiet teenage youth reading a well- thumbed copy of the play, while off-stage his warring parents wrangle loudly about who will take him for the summer holidays. As he buries his head in his book, the characters invade the stage, and he is drawn into the story, gradually taking the fool's lines. This is a neat way of dealing with the fool in a fiercely pruned production, but it also gives the play the wistful, magical feel of escapism.

Within the text itself, Willmott takes further liberties. Here Malvolio, who adores Olivia, is a shaven-headed lesbian. This opens up the text and adds an interesting twist to Olivia's unrequited crush on the cross-dressed Viola. We lose something of Malvolio's ridiculous pomposity (Finola Bryan gives the female Malvolio a sadder, more desperate need for respect that makes the other characters' mockery seem more savage), but this reading adds a layer to the sexual confusion that enriches the comedy, embraces the idea that love of every persuasion is in the air and emphasises the play's darker side. In this production, Antonio also dotes hopelessly on Sebastian, so, when the couples pair off conventionally at the end, only the gay characters, Malvolio and Antonio, are left in the cold (though Willmott takes away the sting with a mischevious curtain call that finds everyone a partner).

On Liz Putland's sunny wooden set, the cast attacks the play with zest. This is a good-humoured adaptation that plays boldly with Shakespeare, but does so with enough reason to come out well.

Not so London Via Stoke's rather leaden version of Macbeth (Lyric Studio, W6). Tony Longhurst and Elle Lewis's production transplants the ambitious Thane to a 1960s East End gangster world. On the surface, this seems quite an appropriate context for the ruthless and bloody tale; but the moral dimension that drives the play virtually disappears. Duncan is a scar-faced godfather figure, so his murder has little moral resonance. And when Macbeth is vanquished, there's no sense of relief - he too is supplanted by another gangster.

With the struggle between good and evil smothered, the production plods along while the cast try to match the text to the context. We are used to accepting Shakespeare's verse in all settings, but here it just doesn't sit credibly in the mouths of East End thugs, and references to the heath, the wood and Scone stick out awkwardly.

The Macbeths themselves (Michael McKell and Jaqueline McCarrick) make a good stab at giving the gangster and his moll something of the weight and terror of the monarchs isolated by their bloody secret, but otherwise this is an adaptation that muffles the impact and import of the original.

'Illyria' to 21 Aug (071-373 3842); 'Macbeth' to 27 Aug (081-741 8701)

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