What country friends is this? indeed. A nifty line switch and a striking coup-de-théâtre gets the RSC’s Twelfth Night off to a wonderful start as Emily Taaffe’s sodden, anguished Viola emerges from the shipwreck she believes has taken her brother’s life and left her washed up in Illyria. Disguising herself as Cesario, a man, she joins the retinue of the Duke Orsino but finds herself swept up in the love games between him and the grieving countess Olivia, whose eye is taken by the new arrival on the scene. Part of the company’s Shakespeare’s Shipwreck Trilogy, the Roundhouse plays host to the repertory season for just under a month before returning to Stratford-upon-Avon for the rest of the month.
David Farr’s production transfers the majority of the action in Olivia’s household to a Greek hotel (which she presumably owns) which proves a mostly effective and ingenious relocation. Malvolio becomes the hotel manager, Feste the old school variety turn, a reception desk stands in for the box-tree and the swimming pool and revolving doors provide constant amusement. Jon Bausor’s beautifully designed set is actually a triumph, an artfully exploded hotel suite on the sweeping expanse of timber atop a water tank, complete with working lift shaft which comes into its own in the scenes of Malvolio’s torment.
Throughout the lengthy first half, the production works hard but doesn’t quite click fully into gear. Taaffe’s Viola, who oddly looks a dead ringer for La Roux when in disguise, doesn’t quite convey enough on-stage charisma for someone so central to the plot: in the case of her scenes with Orsino, it is hardly her fault as Jonathan McGuinness’ disappointingly flat Duke lacked any perceptible sense of passion or sexuality; but against Kirsty Bushell’s exuberant Olivia, there’s just something that doesn’t quite work and so the tone set for this reviewer was of polite engagement rather than genuine thrill. Post-interval though, the chaotic liveliness works its charm and speeds the show to its dénouement with a spring in its step.
Performances are predictably strong for the most part, and in some cases superlative. Jonathan Slinger’s sneering Malvolio is truly excellent in the letter-reading scene and simply breath-taking once gussied up in a manner which could be seen as somewhat excessive for the purpose but effective nonetheless with a truly compelling psychological portrait. Bushell’s Olivia has an edge of cabin fever, going just a little crazy from her self-imposed exile in the hotel, but one which translates into a nicely strident sexuality and some great innovative line readings. Bruce MacKinnon’s Aguecheek possesses a great bumbling warmth; Kevin McMonagle’s melancholy troubadouring as Feste (Adem Ilhan’s music is excellent) sets the mood well; and Cecilia Noble’s Maria neatly suggests that the revenge plot she leads is borne out of her experience of racism.
On the surface, this Twelfth Night appears to be one which is painted in broad strokes and much of the comic business plays towards that interpretation. But on further examination, it is actually a production that is full of innovative thought, careful detailing and interesting new ideas. As with most reimaginings, not everything necessarily works as smoothly as it possibly could, but this is an intriguing account of the play. Having seen The Comedy of Errors the previous night, it is also genuine pleasure, and one which I highly recommend, to watch the company working across the different plays.