Review: Twelfth Night, RSC

“If this were play’d upon a stage now, I could condemn it as an improbable fiction”

There’s a pleasing circularity to this visit to Twelfth Night for me: one of the first plays I saw this year was the Donmar’s West End production of Twelfth Night, a trip marred by horrendous winter storms and travel chaos, so it seems right that one of my last trips to the theatre this year was to the RSC’s version of the same play, once again during some insane winter weather. Fortunately, my journey was less traumatic this time, so I was able to make a more reasoned verdict on the play.

As one would expect from the RSC, and from a production that has already done a Stratford run, it is slickly done and all the performers feel and look supremely confident in their roles. Staged in a incense-laden, Turkish-inspired set, it looks amazing and the costumes are rich and opulent (Orsino’s red robe is a sight to behold). And this all contributed to me being much more amenable to giving the suspension of disbelief necessary for this play, a matter much helped by some canny casting and dressing of Viola and Sebastian who for once really did look like they could be twins.

Alexandra Gilbreath’s Olivia is a delight to watch: full of wit and with a delicious openness to her character, her face doesn’t even bother to conceal her emotions, none more so than when confronted with her new husband’s doppelgänger: “most wonderful!” she exclaims, alive to the new possibilities. Miltos Yerolemou’s Feste is a great Fool, expertly switching between dark and light, clowning for his mistress one moment and revealing hidden truths and motivations the next. He’s also excellently musical, delivering some good songs and two genius moments: one a jazz-riffing, washtub-thumping trio and the other a great audience participation entrance into the second half, well worth ensuring you get back in your seat well before the curtain goes up. Elsewhere, Nancy Carroll gave a touchingly honest feel to her Viola/Cesario, making the final reunion scene genuinely emotional and James Fleet’s Sir Andrew Aguecourt is a masterly comic performance, bumbling, self-effacing and all-too-human.

I do have to admit though to still having some problems with the play, although they do seem to vary depending on the production! Orsino’s ‘love’ for Viola comes out of nowhere here and I saw little in Jo Stone-Fewings’ portrayal that would endear him to anyone, although his court was much less homoerotic than the Donmar’s. And I just don’t like the Malvolio sub-plot, it sticks out for me as unnecessarily mean and whilst I see that this elevates the play from simply being a straight comedy, I just wish there was another way to do it.

It was nice to see this recognised somewhat in the final scene: as Festes sings his last song, we see each of the main perpetrators of the plot at some undetermined point in the future, none of whom have acheived happiness, and then the final image is of Malvolio approaching the Fool, clearly looking to deal with their unfinished business. I liked this recognition that this sub-plot is purely one of petty human revenge, rather than Fate or Time as is often mooted. Richard Wilson’s Malvolio was puritanical yet vain, coldly ambitious yet genuinely humble in the face of his deception.
All in all though, I found this to be highly entertaining, despite or perhaps because of my expectations going into the theatre, but there’s no doubt that this Twelfth Night is an evening of very high quality.

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