Review: Twelfth Night, Shakespeare on 3

“Oh had I but followed the arts”

Joining in the veritable orgy of Bard love that is currently going on, the BBC’s Shakespeare Unlocked season has a wide-ranging programme of features, not least three radio productions of his plays by the Drama on 3 team, two of which are cross-cast from the same company which was full of names I like and was keen to hear. First up was Sally Avens’ Twelfth Night, probably most notable for casting David Tennant as Malvolio.

I haven’t ever just listened to a Shakespeare play before, and though I wasn’t doubting the poetry of Shakespeare’s words, I did wonder what effect removing the visual, and Twelfth Night is a very visual play, would have on the whole. Knowing the play fairly well was both a blessing and a curse in some ways – little was ever likely to surprise me and I had no sense of what this would be like for a first-time-listener, but that knowledge also meant I could relax a little rom trying to work out what was going on. And fortunately, a cast of great experience and talent meant that the thrusting of the language front and centre was a largely successful exercise.

Relatively old hands like Ron Cook’s Sir Toby, Adam James’ Aguecheek and Rosie Cavaliero’s Maria ensured none of the humour of their scenes was lost, though their tricks did seem somehow crueller than usual, even if the gruff Scottish brogue of Tennant’s Malvolio curried little sympathy. Paul Ready made Orsino more appealing than usual and I really enjoyed Naomi Frederick’s Viola, whose disguising of herself as Cesario causes so much confusion.

I was less keen on Vanessa Kirby’s Olivia though, after Great Expectations she is Estella in my head now and her haughtiness here called back to that earlier performance, rather than the melting warmth that should mark her journey out of morning (see, I told you knowing the play has disadvantages!). And there were moments lacking in pizzazz which left me questioning how effective an exercise this really was. If one agrees that Shakespeare has to be unlocked at all, which is a spurious enough claim in itself, who would then choose a two hour radio adaptation, no matter how well spoken, to be the key when so much of the beauty of his work comes from the combination of speaking and staging. Not a bad effort at all, but far from essential. 

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