I’ve been eagerly awaiting the arrival of Gregory Doran’s latest take on Twelfth Night in London since the Royal Shakespeare Company first performed it in Stratford-upon-Avon back in October 2009. Yet again, the casting of a well-known celebrity helps ensure a healthy number of sales (Richard Wilson is no David Tennant, many may argue, but he’s attraction enough for the demographic core of Britain’s theatregoing public). Despite my eagerness, I also approach this show with some trepidation. This is a play that lives close to my heart. Performed well, it can evoke every degree of emotion from despair to hilarity, which makes it all the sadder if these many opportunities are missed.
Between the interesting and thorough programme notes and the lively and colourful combination of set, sound and costume design, it’s clear that much meticulous research has taken place. Doran was keen to create an Illyria close to land. The warm, Moroccan feeling depicted onstage gives the experiences of those newly shipwrecked on this strange land a unique tangibility. Although it is fair to say Shakespeare’s characters have very English natures, the land in which they live is intended to be unknown, new and exciting.
Also remarkable is the sheer clarity of the text—again a tribute to Doran’s thorough and renowned approach to directing. He somehow brings absolute understanding to the audience; be it a deliberate gesture, a subtle but explanatory prop, an emphasis on wordplay, or a momentary pause, the meaning is eked out. This careful and effective approach results in a highly coordinated performance, with props and music working for the text rather than fighting for supremacy over it. In the opening scene, the musical accompaniment perfectly reflects Orsino’s speech, even with the ‘dying fall’. Sir Toby’s flatulence and Sir Andrew’s long, flowing locks are tied in seamlessly to the text—their presence fortified through their demonstrable relevance.
Jo Stone-Fewings gives a commanding performance as Orsino, although I couldn’t help but wish for a little more tempestuousness in him, especially in the climactic ‘patience on a monument’ scene. James Fleet’s Sir Andrew Aguecheek is also delivered with a great deal of charm and warmth, but the chemistry between Fleet and Richard McCabe’s Sir Toby lacks spark. Perhaps one of the finest comedy duos in history fell a little flat with a too reserved Sir Toby.
The role of Viola/Cesario is always a demanding one, but Nancy Carroll handles it admirably, achieving a marvellous balance of earnestness, convincing cross-gender action, and well-executed humorous asides. Miltos Yerolemou as Feste is too farcical for my liking, with not enough of this character’s intelligent and mysterious qualities shining through. His delivery of songs is also disappointing. They’re such a critical part of Feste’s role, and I’m not sure Yerelemou has the vocal dexterity to give them justice.
Richard Wilson gives a very well-received performance as Malvolio and appears in delightfully obscene yellow cross-gartered stockings that trail all the way up his thighs. But I was still left wishing for something more. Although there’s no doubt audiences feel a great deal of sympathy for the tricked and tortured Malvolio as the subplot unfolds, Wilson doesn’t take us on Malvolio’s emotional journey because he is simply too likeable and sincere in his actions to be truly disliked by the audience at any point in the play. Thus, we cannot be amazed by our own change of hearts. We simply like him throughout, and this simplicity proves a complication for Wilson.
Complications aside, this is a Twelfth Night of great merit. The clarity of textual meaning is by far the most outstanding quality of this production and something that makes it a joy to watch, understand and enjoy.
Twelfth Night runs December 19, 2009 - February 27, 2010 at the Duke of York’s Theatre in St. Martin’s Lane, London, U.K. Information can be found at http://www.rsc.org.uk/home/default.aspx.