February 23, 2018, by Peter Kirwan

Twelfth Night (RSC) @ The Royal Shakespeare Theatre

The RSC’s Christmas show, Twelfth Night, saw the creative team behind the popular Love’s Labour’s Lost/Won double bill (director Christopher Luscombe, designer Simon Higlett, composer Nigel Hess, movement director Jenny Arnold) reunite for a production that had all of the flaws and few of the redeeming features of the earlier productions. Twelfth Night had its moments, but its smug conservatism and alarmingly uncritical, fetishising depiction of Britain at the height of empire, added an ugly edge to a production that struggled for coherence of setting or interpretation, and fell disappointingly flat even in the basics of comedy.

Drawing on Victoria and Abdul, Luscombe set Twelfth Night in 1890s Britain, split between ‘town’ (marked as London), where Nicholas Bishop’s Orsino painted portraits of nubile young men, and the ‘country’ of Olivia’s estate, the two worlds separated by a train journey. Class divisions were overlaid with racial divisions in a depiction of the influence of empire on British life – white masters and mistresses surrounded themselves with non-white servants in kurtas, turbans and other markers of exotic foreignness designed to make them stand out against a formal backdrop of English high society. The issues here were legion; not only, of course, did it restrict actors of colour to servant roles (even decent ones such as Feste and Viola), but it also led to the unfortunate visual implication that these privileged white people simply couldn’t tell the difference between one non-white body and another, instead simply projecting desires and perceived sexual availability onto Dinita Gohil’s Viola and Esh Alladi’s Sebastian.

All of this could, of course, have been the basis of a fascinating critique, but the production’s flavour was one of nostalgia and fascination for the period, as evidenced both in the lush design and in the Orientalist deployment of markers of foreignness for aesthetic effect. Viola’s rendition of ‘Come away, come away Death’ was a case in point, the English lyrics and Western melodies embellished – but not underpinned – by sitar, and Viola offering some vaguely defined ritual hand gestures at the end. At no point did the production show an interest in the experience of its non-English characters or in the power structures that kept everyone in their roles.

The setting also led to spatial incoherence, with the separation of ‘town’ and ‘country’ making nonsense of the relationship between the two households, as well as of the central action. Viola was seemingly washed up in ‘town’, and Sebastian in ‘country’; Sebastian’s first scene with Antonio took place at the train station as he excitedly prepared to go to town, and Viola arrived at the same station just as he left. Yet there was no in-universe explanation for how Sebastian then came to be back in the country in time to be attacked by Sir Toby, let alone what exactly either Viola or Sebastian were trying to achieve following their ‘shipwreck’ – referenced in their words but never in their actions. Sebastian, in fact, came across as an Indian noble on a reverse grand tour, chaperoned by Giles Taylor’s Antonio in another ill-defined relationship. Normally I’d try to ignore issues generated by a geographic literalism, but by separating the two houses the production boxed itself into corners – Feste, for example, had to be cut from his scene in Orsino’s household, while the officers who arrested Antonio were credited to the ‘town’ but appeared in the ‘country’ – and the coincidences of meeting and the stakes of being in a given location became incomprehensible.

The overriding principle of the production seemed to be to create visual and aural splendour, regardless of the effect on narrative coherence or characterisation, rendering the production superficial. Visually, at least, Higlett’s design was beautiful. Orsino (an artist in this version) plied his art in a resplendent, gold-effect boudoir; Olivia’s garden was set in front of an enormous summer house; and a fantastic rickety shed descended from beneath the stage to be Malvolio’s prison in his madness. The sound, however, was abysmal, and I’d go as far as to say it treated its actors and audience with contempt. During the musical numbers the full band almost completely drowned out the singers, and Hess’s musical score was cloying and intrusive, underscoring every laugh line, every emotional speech, every moment of wonder. The production, that is, didn’t seem to trust its cast to be able to deliver their lines to the correct effect, and leaned entirely on the music to do this; yet this had the further detrimental effect of obscuring dynamics, spontaneity or direct communication with the audience, the music inserting a non-diegetic barrier into the live experience. The exception that proved the role was Adrian Edmondson’s hilarious performance immediately following the yellow stockings scene where, left briefly alone, he did a modest song and dance and got a round from the audience. Yet instead of leaving the scene, he acknowledge the applause, smiled to himself, then gave a more elaborate routine; then yet another, rousing the audience to further laughter and applause while a group of gobsmacked servants gathered at the door to watch. This was one of a very few instances where an actor effectively gave the impression of spontaneity, and where the music seemed to follow the actor rather than the other way round, and the reception he got was uproarious.

The lack of spontaneity extended to the physical work too where, yet again, the production’s desire for slickness above all else drained all life from the performance. I was frustrated by Luscombe’s choice in the Love’s Labour’s productions to create elaborate machinery for moving scenes so that actors would never be seen picking up furniture and walking off; there’s almost a class issue there that wants to efface the labour of theatre in favour of an effortless facade. Here, the physical work seemed lazy, especially in the final scene where any actor not directly involved in a speech simply stood stock still watching and barely reacting. When the scene explicitly called for physical work, it was tedious. With the honourable exception of Sarah Twomey as a delightfully expressive Fabia, the central overhearing scene was simply boring. Three statues with missing limbs and heads stood upstage and, in jokes telegraphed a mile away, Toby, Andrew and Fabia stood behind them adopting pre-planned and entirely artificial postures. One could see the actors planning how they were going to hit their next point, and I don’t believe that’s the actors’ faults at all. In a production that wanted so clearly to control all aspects of the mise-en-scene and performance, creating even the illusion of spontaneity must have become near-impossible.

Having spent so much of this review focusing on the production’s failings, I’d love to find the interpretive strengths. The production gestured towards the possibility of a queered reading of Orsino, first discovered in his Wildean environment painting the near-naked Curio (billed as his ‘muse’ in the programme); disappointingly, however, Curio’s potentially destabilising presence didn’t extend beyond this scene. The conversation about Cesario’s fortunes led to a lingering kiss between the two of them, a shift further towards homoeroticism than in most productions I’ve seen, leading to the production’s most interesting moment as the two pulled slowly apart and then resumed their usual positions, both sex and race making their kiss unacknowledgable; but again there was no follow-up to this, and Bishop’s Orsino seemed unusually peripheral as a character, limited to the tiny space of his garret. Queerness elsewhere in the production received the faintest of gestures – Sebastian, at the very end of the play, started after Antonio as the latter left, as if suddenly aware of something that had received no reference at all earlier.

Among the servants there was little invention, though some unusual quirks. Beruce Khan, the munshi of the household, was a distinctly unfunny Feste, but in a music hall-style song he showed some surprising anger, suggesting that there was at least an interpretive intention concerning this character’s feelings about the world he lived in; this didn’t manifest beyond the usual resentment towards Malvolio, however. John Hodgkinson was a tall, powerful Sir Toby, dressed as if Bill Sykes, and there was a lovely visual gag when he picked up the tiny Fabia so that he could address her during the set-up for Cesario and Andrew’s duel; his performance was broad, loud and entitled, but had an occasional air of menace, such as in his angry shout to Andrew to send for more money. His dismissal of Andrew at the play’s conclusion was visceral, a roared tirade that left that left Andrew Cochrane’s elderly Andrew feeble and bent over, tottering out after Toby after a long silence. Having the clownish figures so old rather slowed down the comic scenes, but at least distinguished the production from others. Malvolio’s conclusion, too, was handled with a great deal of severity, Edmondson near tears as he choked through his complaint to Olivia, she quiet and tender as she explained that it was Maria’s hand.

The seriousness of the conclusion to the servants’ plot established the mood by which the conclusion to the main plot could be read; a conclusion rather unearned by what had come before. Gohil was an earnest Viola in a performance that entirely bought into the character’s passivity by having her do very little beyond deliver the lines; and she played against an Orsino who was barely present and an Olivia (Kara Tointon) who was so quiet, poised and stoic that she barely registered as a character. Alladi at least brought some energy as Sebastian, his infectious enthusiasm (especially against Taylor’s appropriately reserved Antonio) giving some welcome speed and vocal variety, but it was rather too little too late. The actors always looked the part – the still photographs from the production are lovely – but as so often through this production, the priority seemed to be how the play looked rather than how it sounded, played or moved.

This Twelfth Night, then, did little to make a case for the value of the play beyond its easy applicability to a visually pretty, class-fetishising setting; and the production’s abject failure to hold up to critique its colonial nostalgia, to explore the fluid sexualities that it only gestured at, or to establish emotional stakes, all led to a production that combined conservative values with artistic superficiality, to tedious effect. The production came alive during the moments when the actors seemed to break beyond the elaborate design, the intrusive music and the interpretive inconsistencies and respond to one another and the audience, not as cogs in a machine, but as alert human beings. My hope is that the next time I see a Twelfth Night, it will be a production which goes beyond mere illustration.

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