November 11, 2009, by Peter Kirwan

Twelfth Night (RSC) @ The Courtyard Theatre

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Here’s an interesting question. If one is updating the setting of a Shakespeare play, but needs to incorporate a vast amount of explanatory material in the production’s programme and on its website, are the resonances of the updated setting not then too obscure to hold any meaning for its audience?

Gregory Doran’s new Twelfth Night for the RSC was such a production. As attentive to history and reference as always, Doran chose to play with the geographical Illyria (modern day Albania) as visited by Lord Byron, identified in the programme notes as a key reference for Orsino. The world of this Twelfth Night, therefore, was remade as the final stopping point on the Romantic ‘Grand Tour’, a place of East-meets-West, European sensibilities and manners thrown into relief by local colour. The idea was coherent and interesting, but (in the eyes of this reviewer, at least) rendered effectively meaningless to the uninitiated as the references were so specific and distant. The colonial politics were not interrogated, and the core action of the play (duels, breeches, big houses, servants, what you will) didn’t differ in its essentials from any of the other dozens of Georgian/Victorian-set productions of the play.

Perhaps it’s ungenerous to demand insight, though, when the setting allowed for such a lovely aesthetic. Paul Englishby’s music drew heavily on Eastern influences, with both on- and off-stage bands creating an ambient atmosphere (helped by strong incense) that evoked perfectly the luxuriousness of Orsino’s lifestyle, the bazaars of the streets that linked the two houses and the Orthodox Catholicism, represented by the bearded priest who followed Olivia with an icon of Mary. The setting did also allow for some nice distinctions between "the lighter people"; Toby and Andrew were both Englishmen abroad, while Maria and Fabian were locally-recruited servants, and Feste a Mediterranean musician and purveyor of folk tales, who was shocked and appalled to be addressed by Sebastian as a "Greek": the only time any tension was drawn between the different ethnic groups living in otherwise apparently perfect harmony.

This harmony was key to a production that embraced Twelfth Night as a generally jolly and often hysterical romp pierced with moments and hints of sadness, but never allowing its good spirits to be damagingly compromised. Nancy Carroll’s Viola summed up the play’s general tone, reminiscent of no-one so much as Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music, in voice, look and attitude. Far from being a criticism, Carroll’s Cesario was jaunty without attempts at laddishness, and relentlessly positive, but with a dignity and poise that set her above and apart from the people of Illyria. When being confronted with either Olivia’s adoration or Orsino’s praise for her rival, Viola’s gentle frown and upheld chin spoke simultaneously of her wistfulness and defiance; enduring without much hope, but resilient. While a traditional Viola, Carroll succeeded in making her situation affecting and drawing a melancholy from the character that allowed her plight to matter. This resulted, too, in a rivetting reunion with Sam Alexander’s Sebastian, with the intensity of her shock and happiness all the more compelling for the sadness of her earlier performance. As with all good reunion scenes, for the duration of this scene everyone else on stage seemed to disappear, with nothing else existing for Viola and Sebastian (or the audience) than each other.

Viola’s sadness both echoed and threw into relief the rather more superficial melancholy of Jo Stone-Fewing’s Orsino. This self-consciously poetical figure made show of calling for more music from his young male minions, moving slowly through them attending to every strain. Later, he entered in floods of tears before seeing his courtiers, turning to compose himself, then returning with a wide smile on his face. While there was some sympathy for him at first, it quickly became apparent that this man was in love with the idea of his own melancholy, rather than with Olivia. As he and Cesario spoke of love, he became rapt in the conversation and only Viola’s mention of Olivia drew her back to mind; for Orsino, it was love itself that held his fascination. His attitude was particularly mocked by Feste in II.iv, who stood clicking impatiently as Orsino told Viola what to "mark" in the song, and made fun of his "melancholy god" when he was done. In the final scene, moreover, Orsino’s extremes of passion were further criticised as he drew his sword first on Olivia then on Viola, threatening both in a parodic portrayal of desperate violence that illustrated all too clearly the dangers of his narcissistic performances.

Miltos Yerolemou’s Feste was one of the production’s highlights, the dark conscience of the play. A consummate performer, in one scene he would be rolling through Fabian’s legs and across his back to avoid giving over Olivia’s letter, and in the next banging a washing tub to accompany his drinking songs. His performance of "Come away, come away death" was a tour de force solo piece: unveiling a skull in a deliberate parody of Hamlet, he sang to the dead face, acting out its burial and strewing with flowers. Upon being paid by Orsino, however, he immediately cast off his sober air and began using the skull as a ventriloquist’s dummy, mocking Orsino with its mouth. Yerolemou demonstrated the same skill he showed in his recent performance in Othello of being able to simultaneously act while providing meta-commentary on his own performance. Thus, in his weak attempts to entertain Olivia in his first scene, he delivered the flat jokes which failed to raise a laugh from the on-stage audience, before shrugging to the off-stage audience as if apologising for doing the best with the script he was given.

There was a darker side to this clown, however. On Malvolio’s condemnation of him as a "barren rascal", he dropped the flowers he was carrying in genuine hurt at the insult, before taking cold delight in reminding the defeated Malvolio of his earlier words in the final scene. His railing tone often came close to anger in scenes such as the tormenting of Malvolio as Sir Topaz, and his constant wheedling of money from people was increasingly treated as pestering by Orsino, among others. Single-handedly, in fact, Yerolemou created most of the tension that drove his scenes, pushing the Fool’s role to its limits by challenging the bourgeoise and making fun of his peers, allowing no-one to comfortably inhabit the role they had created for themselves. This was echoed in a neatly-arranged final song, used to allow Feste to comment on the play’s various loose ends: Antonio marched across the stage as Feste sang "Gaint knaves and thieves men shut their gate"; Andrew left with packed bag to the sounds of "By swaggering could I never thrive"; an already-warring Maria and Toby passed by on "With tosspots still had drunken heads" as Maria threw her ring back at her new husband; and Malvolio himself entered and stopped next to Feste as the latter admitted "Our play is done", the laughter forgotten as the tension between the two threatened to spill into an unknown future.

Simeon Moore played an intense, stammering and piratical Antonio, hand always ready on his sword even as he proclaimed a deeply-felt love for Sebastian. He displayed an unusual amount of anger at Cesario, seeming to feel a deep personal betrayal of affection in Cesario’s non-recognition of him. Pamela Nomvete made for a fiery and strong Maria, who had no qualms about threatening Sir Toby and Feste physically when they irritated her. Her story felt oddly unfinished, though perhaps only in relation to a consistently scene-stealing Richard McCabe and James Fleet as Toby and Andrew. McCabe’s farting, swearing, slurring Sir Toby swaggered (or staggered) through his scenes, dominant and confident while in full control at all times; whether making strangling gestures behind Andrew’s back or lowering his tone severely as he plotted Malvolio’s imprisonment, he remained a powerful force that was only ultimately matched by Nomvete’s equally strong Maria.

Fleet was the real star of the show though, in a piece of pitch-perfect casting. Bumbling and unusually self-effacing for an Aguecheek, Fleet managed the trick of making his character both ridiculous and lovable at the same time. Whether pitiful in his attempts to give Olivia flowers, comical as he became stuck in a tree, pathetic as he flailed a sword at Viola or completely lost as he forlornly admitted "I was adored. Once.", Andrew was never less than amusing but always with a sadness that made one feel mean for laughing at him. His gormless smiles were inviting even as they emphasised his basic stupidity, and his delight in recognising Malvolio’s reference to him as a "foolish knight" even constituted a small victory in his own mind. He contrasted wonderfully well with Tony Jayawardena’s excellent, self-aware Fabian. Often an overlooked role, Jayawardena achieved great effect with small gestures, sharing glances and shrugs with Toby that placed him on an intellectual level above Andrew that allowed him  to take the lead in manipulating the knight. Blunt and to the point, Fabian provided an earthiness that countered the shenanigans of the drunks, sharing a servant’s care with Maria and, ultimately, being burdened with the responsibility for the joke: Feste, as the licensed fool, received a short tongue-lashing, but Olivia’s anger focussed on Fabian as the supposedly rational, responsible servant who should have known better than the drunks and fools.

This Olivia was unusual in the range – and extremes – of her emotions. Alexandra Gilbreath’s performance was summed up perfectly as she dismissed Toby, alternating screaming herself blue in the face at her departing uncle with simpering apologetically to Sebastian. Even in her dignified melancholy in the opening scenes, there was an undercurrent of playfulness; Feste’s jokes quickly had her rolling in her seat, and she adopted a deliberately provocative and mocking attitude with Cesario both as she sat among her other veiled gentlewomen and in their later discussions. Cesario’s "Excellently done… if God did all" was greeted, not with anger, but as a challenge in a war of wits that echoed Beatrice and Benedick at their best. Other highlights included her jumping up and down in glee as Sebastian agreed to be ruled by her, and a breathy, sexually-charged "Most wonderful!" as the possibilities for two husbands occurred to her.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, considering the star-casting and his obvious appropriateness for the role, Richard Wilson gave a straight and traditional performance as Malvolio, impressive for a first-time Shakespearean but a little disappointing in light of the innovative performances elsewhere. He wasn’t helped by cliches of staging, such as his appearance bound in a cage poking through the trapdoor for the ‘Sir Topaz’ scene, which left him little space to do much with. However, this older Malvolio made for an extremely creepy ‘cross-gartered’ scene, with him tucking his long black cloak into enormous white briefs and running his hands down his legs "sexily" to Olivia’s utter horror. His ecstatic cries of "To bed?!", followed by a chase around the stage, reduced the auditorium to hysterics. However, the comic set-piece remained, as ever, the garden scene. A box tree on a high trunk was lowered onto the stage (to Andrew’s shock, in a metatheatrical moment reminiscent of Judi Dench and the small house in Doran’s Merry Wives), into which the three over-hearers crammed themselves, peering over the bench on which Malvolio sat and reaching down in anger as their names were mentioned. The tree shook in anger and laughter, Malvolio stood on the envelope which stuck to his foot, the plotters pleaded dramatically with God that Malvolio be inspired to read aloud. It’s perhaps the best image to end with, that of a production which aimed first and foremost to please and entertain. Uncomplicated but not trivial, and the best thing I’ve seen at the RSC for some time.

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