January 16, 2002: Shakespeare, Twelfth Night

RSC, Barbican

A curiously unsatisfactory production, well cast but lacking in pace and energy — until the recognition scene, when things suddenly became magically alive.

I think the set had a lot to do with the problems of this play. Apparently the designer, Ashley Martin-Davis, was asked to design sets for three plays — Twelfth Night, Hamlet, and Julius Caesar — along the same visual lines; perhaps the term I want is “homologous.” To a predominantly bare stage constructed wings, or shutters, were added, augmented by heavier, more three-dimensional pieces which were pushed on from either side, as in the case of massive symmet­rical box hedges, quite tall, half-way up stage, from behind which Uncle Toby, Andrew Aguecheek, and Sebastian (identified in the program as “a grounds­man”) suddenly appear, at the top, to observe the baiting of Malvolio. The play opens with a full-stage view of a drop representing an angry ocean, at the top of the stage; Viola and the Captain enter further down and begin their scene. When it is over, as they exit, a pair of high, monolithic shutters closes in, making a shallow acting area reminiscent of a nineteenth-century “carpenter’s scene,” for Orsino’s musical lamentations. (As so often, I.i and I.ii are played in reverse order.) These shutters, like the set overall, are painted a dull gray-green, a somber color intended, one would have thought, to catch a somberness in the play itself. But somehow all it did was to meld less than well with the action of the play.

And the ensemble never really achieved a coherence of tone or spirit. Barry Stanton was appropriately excessive and fleshly as Sir Toby, but Christopher Goode’s Sir Andrew was lacking in some indefinable way; and together they did not make the devil-may-care drinking partners that the play gives us. The actress cast as Maria, Alison Fiske, was too old or, at any rate, not sprightly enough for the role. The Viola, Zoë Waites, was competent and energetic, but somehow there was too much of the uniformly hopeful smile about her character. By far the two most interesting characterizations were Mark Hadfield’s Feste and Guy Henry’s Malvolio. Feste was a sad clown, with the exaggerated, turned-up-toe shoes of the vaudeville character (we’ve seen these shoes on Charlie Chaplin). He had a decent singing voice — and some very interesting, offbeat music to sing. A fast talker. Malvolio in Henry’s impersonation is an extremely tall, thin and gangly person, immaculately dressed in a sort of morning suit, and sporting a steward’s insignium (we are meant to understand) on his perfectly correct watch-chain. Henry did the uncompromising puritanical rigidity of the character well, and his gulling was very satisfactory. In this modern-dress production the designer, or rather “Costume Supervisor,” Janet Bench, solved the cross-gartered yellow stockings requirement by providing calf-high, bright yellow socks with a gartering system that doubled up over the knee. One of the best moments of the play occurs when Malvolio pulls his trouser legs up over the knee to parade his newly acquired accessories before Olivia. The later scenes, in which Malvolio is imprisoned and tormented again, this time by Feste as Sir Topas the Curate, showed us a deeper, more resonantly wounded Malvolio than most productions do. This was a good example of the excessiveness of behavior that dominates the play. It’s too bad that it didn’t catch fire until the end.




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An American Playgoer in London by Joseph Donohue is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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