Following in the footsteps of Emma Rice’s production of the same play in her final summer season at the Globe, director Christopher Luscombe moves from Nell Gwynn’s 17th century setting to a Belle Époque version of Twelfth Night. This production delights in the work of the Aesthetic Movement, as well as bringing a subcontinental flavour – inspired by the relationship between Queen Victoria and her private secretary Abdul Karim.
The Indian influence is seen predominantly in Feste (Olivia’s fool) and the separated twins, Viola and Sebastian. Upon arrival in Illyria, quite fortuitously, Viola decides to disguise herself as a boy (Cesario) and join the Duke Orsino’s household; eventually she’s entrusted to woo Olivia on the duke’s behalf, though she seems more taken with Cesario than the man whose missives of love are being bestowed. Olivia is also the reason behind Sir Andrew Aguecheek’s presence, as her uncle Sir Toby Belch has persuaded him she may fall for his ‘charms’ – though all Sir Toby is interested in is milking him for as many riches as possible! On top of all this, Olivia’s steward Malvolio becomes a target for mockery, with disastrous consequences, and the arrival of a stranger brings events to boiling point…
Whilst the production sticks to the original text in terms of words (albeit slightly abridged in places), it also introduces a couple of songs referenced by Shakespeare in the play, and slightly switches the order of early scenes. There are echoes of Emma Rice’s recent version, as it begins with Viola’s landing in Illyria, and visually introducing the nobility as they are mentioned in the captain’s replies. Only then do we hear the immortal line “If music be the food of love, play on”. It’s an approach that enhances the storytelling, introducing the core plot and the key players with great ease.
The historical setting of the late 19th century is both clever and very pleasing to the eye (aptly, given the “art for art’s sake” inspiration). In this way it is quite reminiscent of the Trevor Nunn 1996 film version (with Helena Bonham Carter, Ben Kingsley, et al.) – its slightly sombre tone, and accentuation of the melancholy elements, only strengthen this link. But this production, unlike the film, also succeeds in being extremely funny when it needs to be, instead of repurposing it solely as a drama. Its uncertain ending leaves you feeling a little unsettled, though if you think about what’s written that is absolutely fair enough.
Thankfully the musical aspect of the play isn’t neglected either, with a delightful score from Nigel Hess that largely draws on the sounds of the music hall and comic opera, as well as its exotic influences. His decision to bring in those two Elizabethan songs (Hey Robin, Jolly Robin and Please One and So Please All) is a lovely touch, even if it led to the sacrifice of some lines of text, as it gives an insight into more popular culture of the time and fits wonderfully with the overall theme.
Simon Higlett’s designs are absolutely stunning. We are treated to quite an array of interiors and exteriors; Orsino’s Eastern-influenced rooms, Olivia’s garden, and the station (yes, an authentic-looking Victorian railway station!) are definite highlights. The full technical majesty of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre is on show, as their range of sets swing in from the back of the stage, or appear from below the floor – you do find yourself wondering what you might see next! The costumes are also to die for, particularly Olivia’s range of frocks which get steadily less mournful & modest the more enchanted with Cesario she becomes. Malvolio’s infamous yellow stockings are set off by an olive green medieval style ensemble, enhancing his humiliation further.
As the play demands, it is a very strong ensemble cast. A good deal of the laughs come from the ‘below stairs subplot’, as Sir Toby, Sir Andrew, Maria, Fabia and Feste conspire to take their revenge on Malvolio after he slights them once too often. John Hodgkinson & Michael Cochrane’s drunken antics as the knights are impeccable, combining hilariously with Sarah Twomey (Fabia) in the background of the letter scene. Vivien Parry is impish as Maria and really does seem to adore Sir Toby, as he asserts.
Dinita Gohil & Esh Alladi as the twins are a fantastic pairing – Gohil portrays Viola’s increasing pain at trying to woo Olivia for Orsino while falling deeper in love with him herself, and Alladi shows great dry humour, especially as Sebastian contemplates whether he’s mad or dreaming later on in the play. Their reunion is one of great joy that radiates out from the stage.
Kara Tointon is fabulous as Olivia, capturing her seemingly sincere mourning when we first meet her, but always with a glint in her eye that is first awoken by Feste’s return and then Cesario’s arrival. Her humiliation as she discovers she hasn’t married her ‘dream man’ at the end is quite shocking, and you feel real empathy towards her as the other characters initially have a good laugh at her expense. Feste definitely comes across as less of a fool and more of a “corruptor of words”. as he describes himself. Beruce Khan does make him full of wit and a very joyful figure early on, but also unearths his darker, more devious side as he gets more involved in the trick played on Malvolio.
“The madly used Malvolio” has ended up as the central figure of the play in many people’s eyes (including Charles II, a keen Shakespearean, who wrote the steward’s name on the title page of his copy of the play) – and the role is perfectly cast in this production. Adrian Edmondson may primarily be known for his comedy antics with Rik Mayall, but he has also turned his hand to drama in the past. In this play he has the ideal combination of the silly & serious, as Malvolio morphs from austere steward, to prancing fool, to broken (and vengeful) man. Edmondson plays the audience magnificently in his yellow stockings scene, almost making us beg for more of his song & dance.
He makes clever use of accents to hint at Malvolio’s state of mind; the more he slips out of control the less neutral and more naturally northern it becomes (one can easily imagine the snobbish & ambitious Malvolio wanting to fit in with his betters). His promise of revenge at the end also seems genuinely foreboding. A defining performance from Edmondson.
My verdict? A sumptuous production that revels in aesthetics, and finds true emotional depth – quite simply, it has achieved greatness!
Twelfth Night runs at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre until 24 February 2018. Tickets are available online or from the box office.