Michael Grandage’s first Shakespeare for the Donmar’s current West End residency opened, quite literally, with a bang, a mighty crash of thunder and lightning. This call to attention opened an efficient and excellently-performed Twelfth Night that was unashamedly traditional in its desire to please and entertain. An unfussy set saw the actors perform in front of stage-high slatted flats, in a world that evoked the high society of early 20th century England, with tuxedos and dresses the order of the day.
One of Grandage’s strengths as a director is his ability to draw top-drawer performances from actors. This ensemble was barely faultless, each rendering their characters lively and interesting, even down to the jealous Valentine and Curio, watching their master bestow favours on the pipsqueak upstart who they bullied and intimidated when Orsino wasn’t looking.
The performance on which the production had been sold was Derek Jacobi’s Malvolio, and he provided excellent value. His hilariously pompous voice and demeanour in earlier scenes, a caricature of the arrogant English butler, only made his discomposure later on the funnier. In yellow stockings and cross garters, Jacobi was game, thrusting his groin and cackling ecstatically when Olivia suggested “To bed”. Most impressive, however, was his letter-reading. The scene as a whole was simply staged at the seaside, with one upstage hiding place concealing all the onlookers, and thus Malvolio commanded the entire downstage area, growing increasingly excited and ebullient as the letter progressed. His climax, the battle to contort his face into a grotesque smile, was marvellous.
Just as good, though, were the other comedians. The removal of Fabian (a particular dislike of mine – it’s the first part to be cut from the play as the least memorable of the comedians, yet his role is surprisingly crucial and a good Fabian can be extremely funny) interestingly hugely increased Maria’s role in the action: she and Toby joined together to play Sir Andrew and Cesario off against one another in the duel; and she confessed to her own part in gulling Malvolio and her subsequent marriage to Toby. The effect was to make Maria a far more active participant, co-ordinating the antics as much as Toby and taking responsibility for her own actions. Samantha Spiro was fast and funny in the role, confident and good-humoured: she began to obey Toby’s instructions to bring more booze in direct defiance of Malvolio’s presence during the drinking scene, occasioning his disapproval of her. Better still were Ron Cook and Guy Henry as Sir Toby and Sir Andrew. The extreme difference in their heights led to a particularly amusing moment as Sir Andrew carelessly swung round a rolled up screen carried on his shoulder – which passed harmlessly far above Toby’s head. Henry’s Andrew was a fool; however, the humour didn’t come from extreme ridiculousness but from his pathetically endearing aping of Sir Toby, copying him in every gesture and attempting to keep up with his plans. His insistence that “I smell it too!” in response to Maria’s device was followed by him echoing Toby’s every other word as he attempted to hide the fact that he didn’t have a clue of the plan. Sir Toby, meanwhile, was a lovable drunk, a humourous and joyful older man undignified enough to roll on the floor yet compus mentis enough to come up with his plans.
Victoria Hamilton appeared as one of the most girlish Viola’s I’ve ever seen, in elegant corseted dress, soaking wet from the shipwreck. As Cesario, the fact she was a woman was always clear to the audience, the comedy coming from her frantic attempts to maintain her disguise. Hamilton’s appeals to the audience (“A little thing would make me tell them how much I lack of a man”) were particularly amusing, wide-eyed and nervy before rejoining the fray. However, the strongest aspect of Hamilton’s performance was her love for Orsino. When delivering his first message to Olivia, her frustration and bitterness at having to woo someone on behalf of the man she loved were transparent, she becoming genuinely angry with Olivia for not seeing in Orsino what she herself could see. By emphasising the emotional and vulnerable aspects of Viola, Hamilton created a heroine we could truly invest in and laugh with. Indira Varma made for a similarly good Olivia, beginning austere and aloof but quickly cracking into laughter at Feste’s early jests. Her growing love for Cesario gradually energised her as the play progressed, increasingly throwing decorum to the wind until she practically tore Sebastian’s clothes from him as he agreed to be ruled by her. One of the biggest laughs came from her sexually ravenous “Most wonderful!” on beholding two Cesarios in the final scene, licking her lips and quite clearly contemplating the possibilities. Alex Waldmann was more than receptive to her advances as Sebastian, an energetic performance that emphasised the character’s youth and irrepresibility. He needed no pressing to leap into bed with a strange woman, and for once the passion between Olivia and Sebastian felt justified and real.
Other parts were well performed but less impactful. Zubin Varla made for a relatively restrained Feste who, apart from a manic Irish accent as Sir Topaz, drew few laughs besides those in the text. His main strength was as musician and singer; the second act opened with an excellent djembe solo, lasting for some minutes as Viola watched, whlie his songs were performed beautifully. He was distinctly ‘other’ within the play’s aesthetic, wearing coloured patchwork robes next to the early 20th century formalwear of the rest of the cast, but it would have been nice to have seen his role further explored. Mark Bonner’s Orsino spent most of the play in dressing gown over bare chest and pyjama trousers, careless of his duties as Duke while enraptured at love. His court had distinct homo-erotic associations, with one scene showing him and his servants, all bare-chested (bar Cesario) learning formal dances in pairs. Lloyd Hutchinson’s Irish Antonio, however, was the most marginalised of the main cast. His first two scenes with Sebastian were conducted as essentially walk-overs, with the two pausing in their trek across the stage to conduct the scene before moving on again. It left the scenes feeling like interludes, and Antonio’s subsequent interruption of Viola and Andrew’s duel lacked the impact of a man leaping to his dear friend’s defence, particularly as he didn’t even get as far as exchanging blows with Toby before he was arrested. This is one of the first Twelfth Nights I’ve seen in a while to not noticably eroticise Antonio’s feelings for Sebastian, which is the tactic often used to give the character depth. Here, despite a fine performance by Hutchinson, the character simply didn’t make an impression.
The final scene was perfectly pitched between threat (Orsino held a knife at Cesario) and comedy (Orsino proposing to Sebastian instead of Viola). The reconciliation between the siblings was touching, and Malvolio’s promise of vengeance, hissed at Feste before opening up to include everyone on stage, suitably angry on his part, though relieved by gentle laughter as he hobbled off stage, his legs and face scuffed in black soot. During Feste’s final song, as is the modern convention, we saw everyone going their separate ways: the couples leaving together, Andrew leaving alone with a suitcase, Toby and Maria heading off on honeymoon. Antonio settled for a handshake with Viola and Sebastian before leaving by himself, and the lights faded on Feste as he sang his final line.
This was a largely flawless production and hugely well-performed. My only disappointment is that it was so conventional – there were no interpretations, bits of business or deliveries of lines that felt particularly innovative or original. In this sense, it’s perhaps the perfect Shakespeare for the West End – traditional, safe, well-acted, short and familiar. It’s the Shakespeare that people mean when they talk about how it “should” be done. While personally I wish it had stretched itself a bit more, therefore, there’s no denying that this was an extremely enjoyable production and one that maintains the Donmar’s reputation for top quality Shakespeare.
This review originally appeared at Shakespeare Revue.