Golden brown leaves decorate the edges of the stage in Peter Hall’s production of Twelfth Night for the National Theatre. The relatively small and intimate Cottesloe is the site for Hall’s 80th birthday work, directing his own daughter, Rebecca Hall as Viola, amid a star-studded cast including Simon Callow as Sir Toby Belch. But the fallen leaves are indicative of a mood that seeps through this performance, one of contemplation and reflection as Peter Hall, one of the most influential British stage directors of the past century, conjures a Twelfth Night suffused with questions about language and perspective.
Several of the cast appeared in Hall’s production of Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Rose Theatre – Kingston in early 2010. Making the transition are Charles Edwards (who, as Oberon in Midsummer Night's Dream was bizarrely reminiscent of Flash Gordon) as Sir Andrew Aguecheek and Ben Mansfield as Sebastian, among others. Finty Williams gives an energetic and pitch-perfect performance as Maria. Simon Paisley Day is classic Malvolio—uptight, self-obsessed, and partly deformed in his attempts to smile. His torment at the hands of Sir Topas/Feste occurs while he is chained in a large birdcage, blindfolded. It is a grim picture. Callow is a strong Sir Toby, adding energy and not always good-natured levity to the action; there is a bitterness and anger that clouds this character, giving justification for Olivia (Amanda Drew) to be annoyed with him.
David Ryall’s Feste is much more subdued than other Festes—a jester gone to seed, relying on his still-sharp wit but drained by time and age from deploying it fully. His performance strongly hints that Feste discovers the Viola/Cesario doubling, but chooses to remain silent on the subject. Underlined in Ryall’s performance is Feste’s role as philologist, concerned about words and their usage—how words are both necessary but slippery. By paying such careful attention to the language, the production highlights Shakespeare’s constant use of extended metaphor. While Sir Toby and Maria can be quick-witted and with seeming ease pursue their thoughts to satisfying conclusions, much of the humor of Sir Andrew Aguecheek derives from his inability to follow suit. When Maria prompts: “Now, sir, thought is free. I pray you bring your hand to th’ butt’ry-bar, and let it drink” she takes Sir Andrew’s hand and places it on her bosom. Edwards, managing brilliantly to look aroused, disquieted, and confused all at the same time, can only respond: “Wherefore, sweetheart? What’s your metaphor?”
Designer Anthony Ward situates the action in Jacobean-Caroline dress, with the men in long, silky locks, which has the benefit of allowing Rebecca Hall’s hair to remain down, not cut short or pushed up under a hat as in many productions. The design promotes the feminization of the masculine, rather than the other way round. Marton Csokas’s Orsino appears in a sweeping patterned robe, and his ungainly rings of hair cascade down his back like a lion’s mane. Indeed, Csockas presents Orsino as a languid King of the Jungle, at one point touching his hand to his mouth as a lion would lick its paw. His utter absorption in his feelings for Olivia underscores a listless narcissism. Much also is made of Sir Andrew’s graceful golden tresses: “But it becomes me well enough, does’t not?” he says to Callow’s Sir Toby, clearly a matter of pride. But when Sir Toby berates Sir Andrew in the final scene—one of the most serious and uncomfortable moments in the production—he reaches for Sir Andrew’s head and attacks his hair, revealing the finely primped hair to be nothing more than a wig—a masterful touch revealing everything the audience needs to know about the character and the Aguecheek-Sir Toby relationship. The stage itself is a mostly simple affair. A large canvas hangs over the stage and lowers at different points. A table and benches for the rowdy scenes appear and disappear as needed. Most striking are the images of distorted cities and houses in the background, which make sense only toward the end, when Orsino, seeing Sebastian and Viola together says, “One face, one voice, one habit, and two persons, / A natural perspective, that is and is not!” Like Feste’s preoccupation with the slipperiness of language, the audience’s view of the stage is something that both “is and is not.”
The production tends toward the traditional and straightforward, and its humor is more subdued than other Twelfth Nights, but in its reflective melancholy, it allows the language room to breathe and strains of thought time to be coherently delineated.