I’m of the opinion that Twelfth Night is one of Shakespeare’s greatest pieces of work. It’s funny, deep, very clever and features some of the greatest characters in the canon. Its immediate appeal is apparent from the number of productions of the play put on every year. The last twelve months alone have seen Filter, Cheek By Jowl, Propeller, Chichester Festival and the RSC all present the play in the UK, as well as any number of student and amateur productions. It’s also the play I’ve seen the most, in no less than five versions. Clearly, there’s something about it.
So why then is it so difficult for companies to put on good productions of it? Of the five productions I’ve seen one was unforgivably dire and one (the RSC’s last offering in 2005) had interesting moments but was horribly flat with some atrocious performances. Filter’s had promise, but the work-in-progress presentation was far from finished. By contrast, Cheek By Jowl’s version was one of the greatest pieces of theatre I have ever seen, but surely the play must be able to work in English as well as in Russian? I had high hopes for last night’s new RSC production, but again the play fell victim to the curse I seem to put on Twelfth Night whenever I buy a ticket.
It started well. Onto a stage dominated by a grand piano, costume racks and mirrors staggered James Clyde’s Feste, in tatty tuxedo and dishevelled in a manner Russell Brand would be proud of. Employed for his wonderful piano skills as well as his fantastically rakish look, he set straight to work on a stirring and deeply sad piano tune, to which Orsino came on in dressing gown, holding the audience rapt for a good five minutes as the music stirred at something within him. This was a powerful and wordless moment that introduced the two best performers in the piece to great effect: Jason Merrells’ Orsino brought the tortured conflict of the character to the forefront, while Clyde as Feste stole the show at every turn, only flagging towards the end when his irreverent sarcasm started to become annoying. For most of the play, though, his witty line in mimicry and random silliness was entertaining and I found myself sitting through other scenes waiting impatiently for his next appearance.
The Big Concept for this production was cross-gender casting, with a male Viola and female Sir Toby, Sir Andrew and Fabian. Chris New did a reasonable job with Viola, but unfortunately those of us who saw Andrey Kuzichev in the same role only six months ago in Stratford know the wonder of watching a man who can convince us he is a woman. New was steady, and very funny in places, but felt incidental in a production which looked elsewhere for its focal points. New provided one particularly special moment in his second interview with Olivia, however, when he knelt as if to propose, taking her by the hand and looking her in the eye. She focused nervously on him as he gently told her that he only had one heart that no woman would ever be mistress of, and the slow heartbreak of the moment on her part was painful to watch.
Regular readers may recall that I hate, with something of a passion, staggered curtain calls. I don’t mind particularly important performances being acknowledged individually (Anne-Marie Duff in St. Joan, for example) but I really don’t like curtain calls where the actors troop on in order of importance. Last night, all the incidental figures, servants etc., came on first, and were then followed by Viola, Sebastian, Orsino, Olivia and Antonio. They were followed by Toby, Andrew, Maria and Fabian, and finally Feste and Malvolio took the lead bow. In what world does FABIAN get a higher priority curtain call than VIOLA?! I ask you.
Not that I minded Fabian. In fact, of all the low comedians (bar Feste), Fabian was the only one I considered worth watching. Joanne Howarth gave a very solid performance with buoyancy and an enthusiasm that made Fabian (normally the first character to be cut from the play) a far funnier and more important stage presence than usual. It was revelatory, in the sense that it was the first time I had really noticed Fabian onstage and realised how much Shakespeare gives him to do and say.
Fabian stood out next to the other comedians, who were just poor. Siobhan Redmond’s Maria was the most unbearable, walking with a waddle and talking with a slightly exaggerated Scottish accent that turned the character into a caricature. She had no discernable personality beyond the words she was saying at the time and bored me. Forgivable in a production where Maria is playing the straight-person to the comedy pairing of Toby and Andrew, but no such luck here. Marjorie Yates was passable as a caricature of an English landowner, but her Toby was unfunny, relying on the most basic of falling over routines in order to get laughs.
Annabel Leventon’s Sir Andrew was the worst though. Looking like nothing so much as a Thunderbird puppet with a stiff walk, set smile with teeth open so far that they could have had a cigar permanently set in them and an accent so faux-upper-class that it frequently became unintelligible, she was almost offensive in her ludicrous caricaturing. Occasionally, VERY occasionally, this worked to cause a laugh, and her falling-over sequences were actually amusing, but the posturing became irritating within seconds and her forced fixed expressions prevented any variation in the character. Sir Andrew is usually made ridiculous, but take the ridiculousness too far and you can feel like you’re watching a cartoon.
This was an actor-based performance, relying little on design elements, and unfortunately it was the performances that let it down. Justine Mitchell played a surprisingly funny Olivia, and John Lithgow was good value as a particularly strait-laced Malvolio, but overall this production felt redundant. The entrances and exits were cribbed from Cheek By Jowl’s style, the final scene of characters leaving from Trevor Nunn’s film version, the yellow stockings scene was as unimaginative as is possible and, perhaps most frustratingly, the concept of the comedians as female was entirely unused, as all three women were made up as men and their female selves were ignored, strange in a production which was so proud of its cross-gender casting that it spent the entire programme talking about the wonders of men and women cross-casting. A wasted opportunity.