This season at London’s Donmar West End is impressive to say the least. Their current production of Twelfth Night follows the critically acclaimed Ivanov, starring Kenneth Branagh, and precedes Madame de Sade and Hamlet (with big names like Judi Dench and Jude Law among the cast lists). This production of Twelfth Night is far from being cast in the seasonal shadows. With original costuming and stark, stunning sets, director Michael Grandage and his actors, including none other than Derek Jacobi, create a successful atmosphere of ambiguity in a play based upon that very concept.
The complete title of the play, Twelfth Night, Or What You Will, has little to do with the action of the story and seems to suggest that Shakespeare didn’t care enough about his work to give it a suitable title. This flippancy is perhaps the reason for the sometimes ridiculous and often silly plot twists one encounters in the play. Despite these twists and turns, the cast successfully imparts humor throughout. Victoria Hamilton as Viola, the shipwrecked lady forced to make her way in the world dressed as a eunuch, carries herself so well in her disguise as Cesario that while she appears as a boy to all on stage, the audience never forgets her true sex and finds it easy to laugh at her increasingly difficult situation. Mark Bonnar as Orsino, the lovesick duke of Illyria, while often hard to hear, is funny in his ridiculousness, spending the entire first half of the production in his night clothes, pining after a woman who will never love him. Said woman, Olivia, played by the stunning Indira Varma, is witty, cruel, and silly all at once—able to refuse with one breath the repeated advances of the Duke while with the other fall madly in love with his messenger, a person so obviously not a man as to be laughable.
The real powerhouse performances, however, come from the comedic grouping of Malvolio and his drunken, witty, and oftentimes foolish antagonists, Maria, Sir Toby Belch, Sir Andrew Aguecheek, and Feste (Samantha Spiro, Ron Cook, Guy Henry, and Zubin Varma, respectively). Derek Jacobi, the most famous and decorated actor among the cast, offers a stellar rendition of Malvolio, the sullen and pompous house steward reduced to foolishness by the cruel trick played on him by the house guests and servants he is set to manage. When Jacobi appears onstage in a captain’s hat, blue blazer, white shorts, and yellow socks complete with garters, the audience can do nothing but laugh at the scene. The same is true for the performances of Toby, Andrew, and Maria. Spiro, Cook, and Henry throw wit around as if it were confetti, and it is their combined performance that reminds the audience that this is indeed a Shakespearean comedy full of “vinegar and pepper.”
It is not the acting, however, that most distinguishes this performance; what makes this production stand out is its costumes, lighting, and set design. Fizz Jones as costume supervisor chose not to set the play in any one time period, opting instead to have characters change from Elizabethan garb at one point to 1930s beachwear at another. Olivia demonstrates this when she first appears onstage in an incredible black mourning dress complete with bustle and full veil, and is next seen in white sailor pants and oxfords looking very much like a young Katharine Hepburn. The artistic ramifications of this ambiguity of dress link to the ambiguity of the play’s title—in changing the character’s dress to random samplings of historical costume, the creative directors are allowing the audience to take what it will from the production instead of imposing a certain way of seeing the work. The same can be said for set and lighting design. Christopher Oram and Neil Austin combine their talents to create a stark, sparse set notable only for the play of light and shadow across the stage. It is this visual interplay that offers the audience an array of perspectives. At one moment, Olivia, frozen in shadow, sits on her couch pining away for Cesario, while on another part of the stage, Malvolio presents Olivia’s ring to Cesario. This sort of staging and lighting, which shines throughout the production, provides alternate realities on one well-defined, curtainless stage. Outdoor scenes are marked by the brightness of the white backdrop and the sounds of the sea, in contrast to the darkness of Malvolio’s underground prison, setting the tone for the comedic, and the not so comedic moments in this production.
There are dark moments in this work, particularly regarding the treatment of Malvolio by his tormentors. Jacobi does a fantastic job of keeping what little dignity is left to his character after becoming the victim of entrapment and false imprisonment. Vowing revenge on “the whole pack” of them, he leaves the stage with all the pomp and circumstance a broken man can muster. It is not a scene to be laughed at, and the audience realizes this. Even though Toby and Maria get away with their trick, and even though the love knot of Orsino, Viola, and Olivia is appropriately untangled, one is left with the sense that something “funny” went on here. This feeling is evident when one reads the play, and the trick is to impart this to an audience. Grandage and his cast accomplish this and leave us with the decision to make what we will from the story. Happy ending? Perhaps. Or perhaps the ending is flawed with the malice of a joke gone too far. It is ultimately for us to decide what we will.