Twelfth Night is one of those true, perennial crowd pleasers. It lends itself so well to modern reinvention, in new settings and new eras, and when you’ve got a central comedic role like Malvolio it’s a gift for a grumpy comic actor to breathe new life into it. It has songs – so you can make as much or as little of them as you want; it has a girl dressed as a boy making up to another girl on behalf of another boy (that’s bound to lead to trouble); it has drunks and idiots; it has separated twins who dress alike even though they haven’t seen each other for ages; it even has a Fool. If you were to cut up little pieces of all the Shakespeare plays throw them up in the air and then try to put all the most typical aspects back together into one play, you’d come up with Twelfth Night.
Christopher Luscombe’s new production draws inspiration from the late Victorian era. Orsino’s Illyria is a Wildean, Swinburnean palace of decadence, where the Duke paints pictures of pretty young men with few clothes on and despite his protestations of love for his countess seems naturally more attracted to fellas. As a result, the whole Viola/Cesario setup takes on a greater significance. When Viola as Cesario is telling the entranced Duke about how she/he plans to return to Olivia to woo her even more, the Duke gets closer and closer to Cesario until he can’t resist but plant a big sloppy kiss on his/her lips, much to Cesario’s (and ours) dumbstruck surprise. Oh those Illyrians.
In more Victorian design, the garden at Olivia’s country estate backs on to a beautifully realised minor extension to the Temperate House at Kew Gardens; and Feste, her jester, here is cast as her munshi ( Victoria and Abdul has a lot to answer for). That reassessment of the role of Feste absolutely makes sense in this setting. Shipwrecked foreigners Viola and Sebastian have clearly travelled from the East Indies or thereabout, with their stunning Maharajan robes looking strangely none the worse for their experience. Britain in the late 19th century was fascinated by all things oriental; it affected their costumes, their designs, their artefacts, even their drugs. Simon Higlett’s magnificent sets and costumes capture both the spirit of that fascination and the general sense of Victorian England, with the train station, garden statuary, Orsino’s studio and so on. I loved the use of the old-fashioned Polyphon player to provide Feste his backing tracks – a really nice touch.
As seems to be on trend at the moment, we opened with Viola’s arrival, off the shipwreck, for the first scene and then went to Orsino’s studio for his music be the food of love scene, rather than the other way around, as Shakespeare had it. Which among us is going to tell Shakespeare he got it wrong? This way round is much better; it somehow allows for a greater understanding of the characters and the opening scenario if we meet the earnest Viola first and then move on to the louche Orsino.
As in virtually every Shakespearean production nowadays there are a few tinkerings with the script or characterisations; and they are all successful and constructive – apart from just one aspect, in my humble opinion. There’s a lot of incidental music; and nine times out of ten it’s either too loud, or the actors’ amplification is too soft. Many speeches are drowned out by the music – Feste seemed to me to be the biggest casualty – and it’s simply too intrusive. On occasion it’s almost as though they’re trying to make it into a musical; that doesn’t work as there simply isn’t enough music to achieve that. Musically, it’s neither one thing nor the other and I was a little irritated at that imbalance. As usual, as Malvolio’s plight develops, we see him as more sinned against the sinning (yes, I know, different play), and Olivia’s final assessment that he has been most notoriously abus’d is quite right. However, this Twelfth Night is totally played for laughs, and the finale involves the whole cast singing all the songs again (really?) so any lingering sadness for Malvolio gets kicked into touch straight away. Maybe the production sacrifices a little of the play’s darker side so that it can end with one foot in the air going oi, oi, which isn’t necessarily for the best.
Where this production really does come into its own is with some superb performances and truly entertaining characterisations. Let’s start with Malvolio – Adrian Edmondson in that role sounds like a dream come true and will rightly encourage plenty of bums on seats. He’s wonderfully dour as the strict puritan steward, dishing out death stares to reprobates, straightening out the angle of a stationary teapot with pernickety accuracy; and his transformation into a yellow stocking’d, cross garter’d, grinning ninny is very funny and not remotely over the top.
I absolutely loved Kara Tointon as Olivia. Her girlish relish at her constant meetings with Cesario is a sheer joy; her facial expressions really share that sense of physical enjoyment! John Hodgkinson puts his height and his vocal power into a strong performance as Sir Toby Belch, making what can be a somewhat tedious character genuinely funny; farting noisily and uncontrollably as he leaves the stage. Michael Cochrane’s Sir Andrew Aguecheek is another genuinely funny characterisation, collapsing through drink whenever it’s necessary, teetering across the stage in a discreet attempt to escape, mangling his words as he juggles dignity with debauchery. There’s a lovely scene where Sir Toby, Sir Andrew and Sarah Twomey’s gutsy scullery maid Fabia have to blend in with the broken statues in Olivia’s garden in order to hide from Malvolio. Simple physical comedy in many respects, but beautifully done.
Vivien Parry, last seen as the hilariously over-ambitious Mrs Walsingham in Half a Sixpence, brings a huge dollop of Welsh intrigue to the role of Maria; she couldn’t have been more dramatic (and indeed hilarious) in her account of how Malvolio has fallen for her trick – and it’s a really lovely reading of the part. Beruce Khan’s Feste is suitably mystic and exotic, combining the tradition Fool elements with a little touch of munshi magic. Dinita Gohil brings a natural dignity and nobility to the role of Viola; I really admired her clarity of diction with just that hint of Indian refinement that’s particularly pleasing to my ear. Esh Alladi’s Sebastian is a delightfully straightforward chap who can’t believe his luck with Olivia, and he exudes thorough decency whenever he’s on stage. Hats off to the casting department for uniting Mr Alladi and Ms Gohil in these two roles; with their similar heights and frames you really could believe they were twins. And there’s an excellent performance from Nicholas Bishop as Orsino, overflowing with artiness, always confusing the girl for the boy; a perfectly underplayed Victorian version of a Restoration fop.
The press night audience absolutely loved it, and it does fill the theatre with genuine contented vibes and a wonderful sense of good humour. I’d just like them to hold back on the musical intrusions a little; apart from that, what’s not to love?
P. S. Interesting to note from the programme how many of the cast of this show will also be appearing in the RSC’s A Christmas Carol, which opens next month; the two productions being played in repertoire until February. I’ll look forward to seeing that!
Production photos by Manual Harlan