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 death of her 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 a 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 and 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.
DIRECTOR Gregory Doran
DESIGNER Robert Jones
LIGHTING Tim Mitchell
MUSIC Paul Englishby
SOUND Martin Slavin
SAM ALEXANDER - Sebastian
NANCY CARROLL - ViolaL
AURENCE DOBIESZ - Valentine
JAMES FLEET - Sir Andrew Aguecheek
ALEXANDRA GILBREATH - Olivia
TONY JAYAWARDENA - Fabian
RICHARD MCCABE - Sir Toby Belch
SIMEON MOORE - Antonio
PAMELA NOMVETE - Maria
JO STONE-FEWINGS - Orsino
ASHLEY TAYLOR-RHYS - Curio
RICHARD WILSON - Malvolio
What country, friends, is this?
Well, by the looks of things, Ottoman Turkey in about 1820 (although there seems to be rather a lot of drinking going on among the natives for a muslim country). There’s a lovely crumbly brick wall describing more or less a quarter-circle at the rear of the stage, with a tiny barred window at the top, just off centre, a door with a classical pediment, and some broken-off columns rearing up either side of the stage. The boards of the floor rise up at the back of the stage and curl forward like wooden waves, which is a nice touch but somehow not quite enough. They get waves back-projected on them occasionally just in case you don’t realise they are supposed to be waves. There are turkish carpets and big tasseled cushions, hookah pipes and sometimes ornate brass lanterns hanging from the ceiling, tall and spindly tables with samovars on, and an incredibly anachronistic rotary clothes line at one point (I think the carousing scene takes place on the roof of Olivia’s house). Its all very pretty, easy on the eye and able to be sufficiently non-specific to be any time, any place, anywhere - as long as its Illyria (turn left at Samarkand and keep straight on) in 1820. The kind of place Lord Byron and Lady Mary Wortley Montagu liked to hang out in. If it were on a paint chart it would be called “Moorish Magnolia”. Its nice; I like it, although its all a little pristine for such a sandy country (and one with so many inviting beaches to be shipwrecked on) and the box tree looks a bit out of place (Olivia must spend a fortune on irrigation). “The Orchard” consisted of three topiary cones of graduated height. Almond trees would have been better, think I.
T’is a fashion she detests
Well, I don’t know why, because they were all very pretty, very colourful and all perfectly in period. If I have a couple of quibbles, one was with keeping Olivia in her mourning clothes practically until the end of the production – I’ve seen many productions where as she begins to recognise that her mourning is actually an affectation, Olivia goes into half-mourning and then relatively normal clothes. I also have to point out (and I know some people are going to roll their eyes at this point at me picking nits) that the concept of the white wedding dress for women is a Victorian one; up until the 1850’s, women simply wore their best day dress to get married in. Putting Olivia in a white and gold evening dress to get married in wasn’t right. But it was very pretty, I will give them that. Neither am I sure why the costume designer found it necessary to put Malvolio in a soutaine which he had to hitch up and reveal his (rather grubby) modern boxer shorts when showing off his cross-gartering.
If music be the food of love, play on
Well, the music in Illryia is lovely – all bongos and zithers and stuff. Feste (the one person in the entire play who really needs to be a great singer), did sound as if he was one of the rejects for the Illryian heat of the Eurovision Song Contest as his vocal range was extremely limited and he really couldn’t handle a lot of the quite elaborate runs of notes, generally over-compensating for his lack of technique and going horribly, awfully flat.
Get you all three into the box tree
Once again, Mr. Doran shows his directoral skills with this production, although the pacing seemed dreadfully slow in the first half. Luckily it picked up, although nobody seemed to be able to put the brake on and it seemed to get faster and faster towards the end. However, the effect of the initial slowness was to concentrate attention on the poetry, and it was refreshing to be able to hear every word and therefore extract the full meaning from the dialogue for once. I thought that Viola’s first scene could have been handled more dramatically – after all, she has just been shipwrecked. She didn’t even look very wet. And there was nothing to explain how she had ended up with a set of her brother’s clothes; in at least one other production I’ve seen, she finds that her brother’s trunk has been rescued from the wreck (or has been thrown up on the shore) and she finds that she has nothing else to where. Something which I’ve never seen before and which worked extremely well was the short scene in the market in which Viola and Sebastian come very close to finding each other and this was a nice dramatic touch. I also liked the “non-happy ending” for several of the characters – while Feste is murdering his final song, Sir Andrew, Malvolio, Maria and Sir Toby cross the stage going home dejectedly, pondering their future and having their first marital falling out respectively. Not everything ends happily for everyone in Illyria, which is just how it would be in real life.
O when mine eyes did see Olivia first, methought she purged the air of pestilence
And so she did – Ms Gilbreath was a wonderful Olivia, certainly one of the very best I have ever seen. She has a strange, smoky voice (almost as if Olivia has been puffing away secretly on Turkish cigarettes) quite masculine and reminiscent of Joan Greenwood which takes a little time to get used to, but she modulates her dialogue beautifully, with all the nuances nicely pointed and taken quite slowly; I think this is probably one of the first times when I actually sat and listened to Shakespearean dialogue with a sense of just how wonderfully poetic it is. A fine actress is capable of bringing out nuances which often go unnoticed in dialogue and Olivia’s “Oh, how wonderful!” at the very end of the play when she is faced with both Viola and Sebastian was a masterpiece of lustful innuendo in five syllables as she contemplates the prospect of having two identical “men” in her bed.
…the best persuaded of himself, so crammed, as he thinks, with excellencies, that it is his grounds of faith that all that look upon him, love him
And so to Mr. Wilson. Not nearly as funny as expected or wished for – the “letter scene” was probably the most disappointing I have ever seen this played. Wilson plays Malvolio straight down the line with little feeling for the subtleties of the role – in fact, he plays Malvolio as Richard Wilson. There were a few flashes of his alter ego Victor Meldrew and it would have been fun to have seen more of this – I know the RSC is all about the sanctity of the text but a quick “I don’t believe it!” during the letter scene would probably have brought the entire house down. I do have sympathy for Wilson though – like Sinbad and the Old Man of the Sea, he always be carrying this monster on his back and will probably never be rid of him. The trouble is that Wilson and Meldrew are more or less the same person. His Malvolio, however, is at the same time, both and neither. There’s no towering rage in the drinking scene and no puffed up peacock in the letter scene, and consequently no real sense of sympathy from the audience during his incarceration. Consequently, in this production Malvolio feels very much like a minor character, and is thrown into darkness not because of his failings but because the vast majority of the remainder of the cast are shining so brightly that he becomes overshadowed. His final line is delivered from offstage, which renders the character even more impotent – instead of witnessing an admittedly ill-used man explode with rage or deliver withering malice, we are left to our own imaginations as to how Malvolio is reacting. Having said that “I’ll be revenged on the whole pack of you!” is rather like “A handbag?” from The Importance of Being Earnest in that its probably the most famous like in the entire play and everyone is waiting with bated breath to see what the Director is going to do with it. In this case, Doran fudges it completely.
This is a visually charming production, finely nuanced and very well acted – although its lack of a strong Malvolio makes it feel a little hollow at times. There is also a certain lack of hilarity about the proceedings – rather than being uproariously funny, it feels only gently whimsical and slightly wistful at times.
Amazingly, this is the first time Wilson has ever played a Shakespearean role on stage - you can tell from this clip just how embarrassed Wilson is by the fawning interviewers.
What the critics thought: