Twelfth Night – September 2007

2/10

By: William Shakespeare

Directed by: Neil Bartlett

Venue: Courtyard Theatre

Date: Friday 28th September 2007

I was a bit disappointed with this production, and there were several reasons for this, not all to do with what was happening on the stage. To begin with, this was the first time we’d sat so far back, under the overhang, and I just didn’t feel connected to the performance emotionally at all. I felt the action was a long way away, and I just couldn’t get involved. This may be because we’ve been so close for so long that we’ve adjusted to that, or it may be the performance wasn’t being “sent out” enough, I don’t know. Either way, it made the evening less enjoyable, sadly.

Another difficulty was that we’ve seen the Chichester Festival version of Twelfth Night so recently, and it was so magnificent, that echoes are bound to carry over, and it’s hard not to compare. While this production is clearly different, the fact that I couldn’t engage with it meant I could never overcome the comparison, and it fell short on that score as well. This was unfortunate, as normally we’d have months if not years between productions.

The set was also unfortunate. The acting space went right to the back of the theatre, from what I could see, although there was a door at the back so the set wasn’t right up to the back wall. The walls were clad in backstage plasterboard, and there were racks with clothes either side at the rear, so the setting was clearly meant to remind us that all the characters are playing a part. There was a screen at the front of all this, at the upper level, which created a deep overhang for the rear part of the stage, and which separated later on to show us Malvolio imprisoned in the drying room, but was otherwise a sombre presence, not entirely helpful to a comedy. All of this was in drab colours, and with the black of many of the costumes, which were unequivocally Edwardian, the whole effect was depressing rather than uplifting. The attempt to create a space with no clear time and location might have been better served in other ways than precise period costume and immediately recognisable setting, but that’s life.

The biggest problem I found with the performance itself was that Viola, played by Chris New, was the most masculine Viola I’ve ever seen. Apart from a little bit of simpering, some semi-mincing and some hair patting, this was basically another Sebastian. I was never able to see him as a woman, and there was very little of Viola’s vulnerability, or at least her awareness of her vulnerable position, and no real sign of her grief. Other performances were OK, and any weaknesses I’d put down to the production. The cross-casting of males and females, which seemed to be mainly to get the right proportions for the companion Comedy of Errors, meant that Sir Toby, Sir Andrew and Fabian were played by women, and done pretty well, while Viola was still the only female part played by a man. Sir Andrew, in particular, was well done, as an aristocratic silly-ass, who was obviously trying to emulate Sir Toby in everything. Sir Toby was a weaker character than some I’ve seen. His drinking had obviously got the better of him some time ago, and Maria (Siobhan Redmond), all wiggles, was clearly going to have the upper hand in their relationship. They snuck off with their luggage while everyone else is partying at the end.

John Lithgow as Malvolio was also very entertaining. Starched upright, he moved as gracefully and sedately as if dancing a mournful minuet, so when he did break into a trot, to catch up with Viola, he looked wonderfully absurd. His fantasises about being married to Olivia built us up nicely for the actual letter reading, and with no attempt at greenery, the attempts of the watchers to hide themselves were even more funny. Malvolio’s excessive joy at finding his dreams have come true was expressed by rubbing the letter all over his face, and the practice smiles, which took a bit of doing, were wonderfully grotesque. This was undoubtedly the best scene of the play.

The later Malvolio scenes – the cross-gartering, the madness and the revenge – were all good, with Malvolio showing more dignity in the latter two than I’ve seen before. Finally, the discovery sequence was good, although I wonder if that’s just the quality of the writing rather the performances, and I particularly liked the way in which Olivia is in turmoil after finding out she’s married a man she doesn’t know, and who isn’t the man she took him to be (after all, she doesn’t know Cesario that well either). She has to think really hard about whether she’ll accept this marriage or not, but eventually decides to make the best of it. A good level of ambiguity with which to end the performance.

© 2007 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me