July 25, 2006, by Peter Kirwan

Twelfth Night (Cheek by Jowl) @ Warwick Arts Centre

MAY 30TH 2006 (backdated)

The first and only disappointing thing about this performance was the relatively small audience. Unfortunately, the Arts Centre is on a University campus which was right in the middle of exam period, and the fact that the play was in Russian probably put quite a few people off as well.

The fact that a half-empty audience can still bring down the house with cheering and laughing should hopefully point to how good this production was, though. I’m trying to avoid superlatives in this blog, as ‘Antony and Cleopatra’, ‘Othello’ and ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ are already among the best performances of Shakespeare plays I’ve ever seen, but I do have to add ‘Twelfth Night’ to that list.

Declan Donnellan, the director, has a very distinctive style. Scenes overlap, all movement is carefully choreographed and lighting (dim and blinding) is all-important. This play was no different, and the style and design really shone. The fluidity and pace of the action was breathtaking, the whole play taking only 2 and a half hours including a long interval.

The cast were all male, as in the earliest performances of the play, and the three actors playing women were impressive in their femininity- Alexey Dadonov’s Olivia was elegant and poised, while Andrey Kuzichev’s Viola/ Cesario was so convincing that you often had to remind yourself that there was a man beneath the woman beneath the man.

Some of the funniest comic moments in the Festival have seemed so partly because they are set against more serious moments, and this play was no different. A moment in the kitchen scene where a drunk Sir Toby punched Maria in the face killed all laughter instantly in a moment of shock, but their recovery as each character progressively drank and started singing Russian folk songs turned into one of the most poignantly funny parts of the play.

Feste. played in this performance by Evgeny Pisarev who I don’t think is coming to Stratford next year, was a delight, a camp clown who reminded me a little of Bette Bourne’s Dogberry from ‘Much Ado’ without the bluster (on an aside, Bourne was actually at this performance and came to the post-show drinks afterwards. Didn’t get to talk to him though). He sang a great deal, his songs bringing other characters together and ending periods of fighting. He also got together with Antonio at the end, which was sweet!

It’s a quirky production that had a very distinctive mood to it- slightly sad, but also very funny. In that sense it reminded me a little bit of the film version of it by Trevor Nunn, which did something similar. I particularly felt sorry for Dmitry Diuzhev’s Malvolio, who didn’t seem to deserve quite as cruel a lesson as the others gave him. He stole the ending of the show in style though- as everyone celebrated, he quietly entered in his butler costume with a tray of drinks, and made sure everyone got a glass, keeping his head down as if still ashamed by his ordeal. As they all raised their glasses in a toast, though, the lights plunged down and he wheeled round with a cackle of, “I’ll be revenged on the whole pack of you!”. Wouldn’t we like to know what he’d put in the champagne…..

An absolute triumph, and hopefully word of mouth will give it bigger audiences when it comes to the Swan next year.

Posted in Theatre review