03 January 2009

Twelfth Night - Donmar Theatre @ Wyndhams - Friday 2nd January 2009

What Act 1, scene 1 should look like - but didnt.


Viola has been shipwrecked in a violent storm off the coast of Illyria; in the process she has lost her twin brother, Sebastian. She disguises herself as a boy and assumes the name Cesario for protection. Thus disguised, Viola becomes a page in the service of Orsino, the Duke. It seems that Orsino is having little luck courting Olivia, who is in mourning for the deaths of her father and brother. As Orsino's proxy, Viola is sent to Olivia with love letters. Viola refuses to budge until she is let in to see Olivia; Olivia, intrigued by the impudent young "boy," contrives to get "Cesario" to return by sending her steward, Malvolio, after her with one of Olivia's rings. Viola realizes to her dismay that Olivia has fallen for her – Cesario - rather than Duke Orsino—further complicated by the fact that Viola has had stirrings herself for Orsino.

Sebastian (Viola's twin, presumed dead) comes ashore in Illyria thinking that Viola has drowned in the shipwreck. A man named Antonio rescued him from the surf, and continues to aid him—at some risk to himself, as Antonio fought against the Duke at one time. Meanwhile, in Olivia's house, Sir Toby Belch (her uncle) has hoodwinked foppish Sir Andrew Aguecheek into supporting him by convincing him that he could be a suitor to Olivia. There is a running feud between Malvolio and Belch; with the help of Maria, Olivia's maid, and Feste, a clown, Belch plots to make a buffoon of the steward. Maria writes a love letter to Malvolio that will make him think Olivia has fallen for him.

Malvolio falls entirely for the sport, which eventually leads to his confinement as a madman. All the while, Belch is egging Sir Andrew into a duel with Viola's "Cesario" character as she departs from Olivia; Olivia is now entirely smitten with Cesario, even though Viola continues to press Orsino's cause. As Viola and Sir Andrew prepare for a duel that neither one wants, Antonio happens upon the scene. Believing Viola to be Sebastian, he intervenes and is arrested. Viola, of course, does not recognize Antonio. Later, Belch and Sir Andrew encounter Sebastian, who doesn't back down from Aguecheek when challenged and resoundingly beats him. Olivia intervenes in the matter, and—mistaking Sebastian for Viola/Cesario—presses her suit for him. A bemused Sebastian agrees to marry her.

Antonio is brought before the Duke for questioning, and Viola relates the events of the duel. Antonio tells everyone how he dragged "this man" from the surf, saving his life. Then Olivia enters, searching for her new husband—which she thinks is Viola (as Cesario). Adding to this confusion, Belch and Aguecheek enter claiming that Viola/Cesario has violently assaulted them. In the midst of Viola's denials, Sebastian appears. The brother and sister recognize one another and are reunited; Sebastian helps to clear the confusion as to who fought who and who married who. At the end, Orsino and Viola pledge their love, Olivia and Sebastian will remain satisfactorily wed, and Olivia rebukes Belch and Maria for their abuse of Malvolio, who vows his revenge upon the whole lot. Belch agrees to wed Maria to make up for getting her in trouble, and all—except the disgruntled Malvolio—will apparently live happily ever after.


Mark Bonnar - Orsino
Norman Bowman - Curio
Ron Cook - Sir Toby Belch
Ian Drysdale- Sea Captain / Dancing Master / Priest
Victoria Hamilton - Viola
Guy Henry- Sir Andrew Aguecheek
James Howard - Valentine
Lloyd Hutchinson - Antonio
Derek Jacobi - Malvolio
Samantha Spiro - Maria
Zubin Varla - Feste
Indira Varma - Olivia

I couldnt find anything on the web about this particular production, so here's the opening sequence from a very visually engaging film version. No idea who is playing the Captain, but he's VERY cute and I certainly wouldn't mind going down with all hands on him.

Right - let's put some benchmarks up here. Twelfth Night is my favourite, favourite Shakespeare play. Ever. Not only was I once in a production playing Sir Andrew Aguecheek (which allows me to feel somewhat proprietorial about the whole thing), but back in the mid-1990s I was privileged to see a production by the RSC at the Barbican which was so completely and utterly wonderful in every way that it remains, for me at least, the definitive production. It was visually stunning, perfectly directed and incredibly well acted. Desmond Barrett was Malvolio, Hadyn Gwynne was Olivia, and Derek Griffiths was Feste. So any subsequent production I see has to overcome many hurdles - and this version cleared several, but not all of them.

The first hurdle is that I do enjoy traditional productions; my heart sinks when I find out that a director has decided to give a modern dress production. I think its lazy. I did see a DVD about the recent Donmar Othello which presumed that modern directors panic somewhat about period sets and costumes as they don't think these "resonate down through the centuries" with modern audiences. But they're wrong. They do. Shakespeare wrote about character types and emotions that we all recognise. This particular Twelfth Night falls between two stools - its not "modern", its not of any recognisable "period"; at first it appeared to be set during the British Raj, then moved on to the 30's. It's very non-specific about time and location, which irked me somewhat. I suppose the director was going for an "anywhere, anytime" feel by paring sets and costumes down to the very basics. Half of the production takes place in front of a row of very Donmar-esque wooden shutters, the other half on a featureless, windswept beach. I suppose this concentrates one's attention on the actors, but its sometimes nice to allow the eye to wander. The RSC production was so pretty and detailed that there was always plenty to look at if you found your attention flagging.

The second hurdle is that Twelfth Night is a very dark and cruel play in places, focussing on class distinction, social position, the pain of unrequited love and malicious revenge, and I like to see these aspects preserved, as they throw the rest of the play into contrast. Light and shade is what is needed. But this production is very much played for laughs all the way through - like the National Theatre production of Much Ado About Nothing that I have reviewed elsewhere, which soft-pedalled the darker aspects in favour of the fun. To play Twelfth Night as a bright and breezy romp all the way through is to miss quite a lot, I think. At some points, this felt like a P.G. Wodehouse version of the story.

Another problem I had was that the entire show was played so bloody fast. I know that anything which speeds up some of Shakespeare's more dreary speechifying is a good thing - but there are times when the language is so beautiful and the emotions so true that it can pay to take time over them. Certainly, I thought at a couple of points, if you weren't already familiar with what is a very complicated plot, a lot of it could very easily be missed completely in the rush.

All this, of course, makes it sound like I sat there with a frown and crossed arms all night. But there were things that I hugely enjoyed along the way. Zubin Varla was, quite possibly, the best Feste I've ever seen. Great singing voice, able to play his own guitar, perfect diction, the ability to do cartwheels and, most importantly, the ability to deliver his lines wittily and make them sound "off the cuff" rather than "rehearsed and parrotted", which so many actors who get saddled with Shakespeare's "clowns" just can't manage. Guy Henry's Sir Andrew was possibly even better than my own (cough) and has great comedy legs, prancing about the stage like a distracted stork. The part could have been written especially for him. Derek Jacobi's Malvolio was a masterclass performance, with touches of Jeeves, the snotty butler from The Remains of the Day and, oddly enough, Ratty from The Wind in the Willows. - particularly in his yachting get up. Victoria Hamilton was a feisty Viola, and reminded me visually of a girl I was at school with who was mistaken for a boy by a short-sighted teacher, who demanded to know why "he" wasn't wearing a tie. Her outraged response - "I'm a girl!" - would have fitted very nicely into the text of the play! And Samantha Spiro was pert and saucy as Maria - a difficult part to pull off successfully. I didn't think Ron Cook bought much to the role of Sir Toby (but then I don't like Ron Cook anyway) and, I thought, didn't explore Sir Toby's parasitic relationship with Sir Andrew anywhere near enough. And Indira Varma was a ravishingly beautiful Olivia, all bone structure and poise, although I did think playing it all for laughs was wrong. There are times when Olivia should be the calm centre of the storm of madness that is sweeping through her household, and a little more gravitas would have been better. Mark Bonnar seemed a rather indifferent Orsino - but I have to tell you this; the man is a real Silver Fox with an impressive body and, visually at least, perfect for the role.

The music was practically perfect - all the songs were tuneful and full of musical light and shade where necessary, and the incidental music excellent and unobtrusive, highlighting what was taking place on stage extremely well. And the lighting was excellent as well - its often said that, if you notice the lighting, the Lighting Designer hasn't done their job properly - but this was all properly sourced and correct (although there was a bit of a dark patch in the middle of the stage sometimes).

It was also nice to hear people laughing at lines that don't normally get a laugh in this play. However, like the waves crashing on the shore of Illyria, there was sometimes too much foam and not enough fathoms to make this a truly wonderful evening.

1 comment:

JohnnyFox said...

I'm not sure I should encourage your Captain Birdseye fantasies, but the actor is Sydney Livingstone - you'll also find him camping it up in a bit part in Acorn Antiques The Musical, so I think you've a chance he's acquainted with Dorothy ...