March 11, 2012, by Peter Kirwan

Twelfth Night (RSC) @ The Royal Shakespeare Theatre

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The RSC’s first salvo in the 2012 World Shakespeare Festival is a major new trilogy of plays on the theme of shipwrecks, all performed by one company of actors. The absence of Pericles is a mystery (actually, it’s not a mystery at all – it’s not a play that sells seats), but the grouping of The Comedy of Errors, The Tempest and Twelfth Night is a tantalising one. Sadly, despite the drama that such a tempestuous trilogy might promise, the opening Twelfth Night seemed distinctly becalmed.

A disclaimer: I saw this production on its second preview, and the company had clearly not had time to bed in. The main problems from my point of view, in a poor seat in the upper circle, were to do with the use of space (actors looked stranded in a cavernous multi-faceted set), pace (cues were missed, action felt leaden) and technical elements (a buggy getting caught in the wings). It felt rough around the edges, particularly on two occasions where exits did not seem to have been planned, and actors simply turned around and walked offstage. The lack of fluidity, from my perspective, slowed the production to a crawl, and the majority of the laughs came from Shakespeare’s lines rather than from anything in the performance of them. I like this company, however. I think the production will get much faster and funnier, and hopefully it will thrive. I should also add that the group I was with largely loved it, and I may simply be spoiled by far funnier Twelfth Nights. The presence of Kirsty Bushell as Olivia was, to me, a painful reminder of her performance in the same role in the far superior version by Filter.

Jon Bausor’s glorious set combined the wreckage of a beached ship (sofas, pianos, chairs all caked in mud) with the decking of a Mediterranean resort for English ex-pats. Downstage, the decking was taken up to reveal a water tank from which Viola and Sebastian emerged on their first appearances, and into which Sir Andrew jumped in order to escape censure (to amusing but perfunctory effect). Thematically, the more interesting use to which this pool was used was as a refuse bin, particularly in an evocative image as Olivia finally cast Orsino’s proffered flowers into it. With such a striking physical environment, it was a shame more wasn’t made of it, though some interesting blocking saw characters repeatedly forced back onto the diving board that overlooked it, particularly tense when Olivia was trapped on the precipice by a leering Malvolio and had to edge around him to return to firm land.

With a bar in one corner, a piano in another and a tilted bed sitting upstage, there was a lazy holiday feel to the action. Nicholas Day’s Sir Toby wore Hawaiian shirt and sunglasses, spending his time in a state of constant inebriation while Cecilia Noble’s Maria, dressed as a hotel maid, tidied up brochures. Bruce Mackinnon’s Andrew, a roaring boy bearing a striking similarity to Hugh Laurie’s Prince Regent in his stance and bark, was nervier and more wired, but similarly relaxed into the holiday mode. Fabian (Felix Hayes) was a builder working in the hotel who never seemed to do any work, and Feste (Kevin McMonagle) an older resident of the resort. There was a lack of any sense of urgency or time pressure about proceedings, which meandered hazily, everyone pursuing their own amusement.

This inertness applied similarly to the main plot. In the opening scene, Orsino, Valentine and Curio were discovered lounging in various states of exhaustion on rugs, sofas and across a piano, their lines coming from a place of lazy slumber. Olivia was also already onstage, lying on the upstage double bed, and Emily Taafe’s Viola emerged from the water only to lie at extreme downstage during the opening scene (a device re-used for Sebastian’s later appearance). The recurrent staging saw the present or future objects of people’s affection appear, still, on the stage while their other halves spoke, but added nothing in an interpretive sense. This staticness and calm, playing on simple images, forestalled actual activity, as if the entire population of this resort was struggling against heat exhaustion.

This was, presumably, a directorial choice, and lent the production a nice ambience that often worked well, particularly in Bushell’s outstanding Olivia, whose casual air and quiet concern for her servants were compelling and sympathetic. The atmosphere of gentle wonder suited the experience of Stephen Hagan’s Sebastian perfectly, as he allowed himself to be led slowly offstage to Olivia’s bed and again to marriage. Taafe’s melancholy Viola was also fitted to the elegiac atmosphere, although this was damaging to the production itself – a quiet Viola, already a passive character, risks disappearing into the background entirely. The twins were primarily there to look at rather than to drive the story. While Taafe occasionally injected some energy into her performance, most amusingly her rapier-flailing attempts to drive away Sir Andrew, for the most part the character seemed peripheral to the action.

Attempts to speed up the production felt tacked on and horribly inappropriate. The disco music brought in for Sir Andrew’s initial dance started suddenly, echoed tinnily in the huge room, and stopped just as abruptly in order for the next scene to start. Before Malvolio’s final return at the end of the play, the music kicked in again and the cast began indulging in a bizarre energetic orgy, the couples writing on the hotel furniture, in an entirely incongruous sequence that apparently had nothing to do with the rest of the production. Much, much better was the drinking scene, which drew on the aforementioned Filter production (albeit less effectively). For the catch, the three singers began singing unaccompanied, added the sounds of small percussion instruments and a concierge bell, and built up to a climax with electronic underscore and screaming drunkards. The crescendo of this scene was organic and integrated into the play world, with a sophistication lacking elsewhere.

McMonagle’s Feste was a wistful figure, older than many other Festes I’ve seen and taking his musical heritage from Irish folk. He carried with him a small Casio keyboard, and accompanied his sad songs with simple chords. His performances for Orsino and Toby/Andrew were beautiful, as was his rendition of "The rain it raineth", to the sound of which the two lead couples went to lie quietly on the upstage double bed in an image that showed a shared amity between the four. The production’s great strength was in its reunion scene, which made much of the peacemaking between Orsino and Olivia, who embraced like brother and sister. Interestingly, Viola and Sebastian were cast with the brother absolutely dwarfing his sister, drawing attention to the differences between the two and the protective nature of the relationship between the two. The appeal of the play was toward a simple, family love.

There were gestures towards darkness, which were poorly realised. The first half closed on the image of Olivia weeping after Viola’s rejection of her; and Jan Knightley’s Antonio had a brusque air and a violent arrest. Both images were immediately forgotten though, and Antonio in particular received almost no attention throughout the play. Toby and Andrew were forgotten immediately after their final dispute, at which Andrew grabbed his bag and ran out in the other direction. The Sir Topaz scene, meanwhile, featured Malvolio receiving electric shocks in the darkness, but again with no sense of danger or critique. The laziness of the holiday feel became the production’s key problem at these moments, with no real sense of purpose or agenda. Amusing and disquieting elements sat alongside one another without coherence, and nothing to tie together meaning.

Thank God, then, for Jonathan Slinger’s Malvolio. The only actor who made the effort to really command the entire space, the theatre came to life every time he came on stage. Whether in cheap jokes such as his appearance on a resort mobility scooter to pursue Cesario, or in his wonderful attempts to move up and down staircases while wearing his circulation-cutting PVC stockings, he showed a physical and vocal dexterity that afforded the character a clear progression throughout the play and thus by default rendered him the play’s focus. Slinger’s smarmy hotel clerk took pleasure in his snide asides and his limited power over the other employees, and the elevation of his ambitions on reading Olivia’s note (pronouncing MOAI as "moi?") was a pleasure to watch, particularly as the location of the bar behind which the clowns hid meant I couldn’t see anything else of the overhearing scene. Slinger jumped on top of furniture, smiled toothily and ended the scene by running out, genuinely energised; and as he sashayed around the stage for Olivia’s benefit in the second act, the theatre was helpless with laughter. His quiet delivery of "I’ll be revenged", which took in the whole theatre, offered the production’s most genuinely complex moment, and one only hopes that this performance remains the standard to which the rest of the production will rise over the next few months.

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