By William Shakespeare
Directed by Michael Grandage
Donmar in the West End
Venue: Wyndham’s Theatre
Date: Saturday 7th March 2009
Well, this was quite an amazing experience from the word go. A couple of fatalities in the Norbury area a couple of weeks ago kept us from seeing this production as originally booked. The only available alternative performance was the last Saturday matinee, and the only seats for two were in Box 1. I’d never been in a box before – neither had Steve – but despite the restricted view we decided it was worth it to be able to see this production. Now, sitting here, I can safely say these are the best restricted view seats I’ve ever sat in. The box is the size of a (very) small bedsit, the actors will be within spitting distance (not that I plan on doing any such thing) and if I learn forward (very carefully) I can see almost every part of the stage, including some parts few other eyes can reach. I’m thoroughly enjoying myself and the performance hasn’t even started yet!
The set had scumbled wooden louvered doors floor to ceiling in autumnal colours, all along the back and round the side, with broad wooden floorboards, a bit rough and nibbled at the ends, covering the stage. These represented the seashore and large country house aspects of the play very well. During the play the doors at the back rose up and we could see the stage behind. Another set of doors were lowered down, in a concave arch, and for some scenes they were removed altogether. For furniture, there was just a chaise brought on and off and a windbreak used in the letter discovery scene, but otherwise the stage was bare and characters often sat on the floor. I realised after a while that the floor was also curved, dipping down from the sides towards the centre. From our angle, I had no idea of the rake.
The costumes were of uncertain period – Steve reckoned Edwardian, similar to Chichester’s production last year, while I thought they might be a little later. Either way, they were more up-to-date than Elizabethan. Feste wore a tattered patchwork coat over scruffy top and trousers, while Orsino wore very little until the latter scenes – pyjama bottoms and a robe, which hung open most of the time revealing a well honed torso, with good muscle definition and a nice covering of hair……. Sorry, where was I? Both Viola and Sebastian wore military-style outfits with short jackets, striped trousers and a sash at the waist. At the start Viola wore a tattered dress, fitted to the waist then full to the floor with a lacy overskirt; the sea-green colour made her look like a mermaid. Olivia started out in a black dress likewise fitting on top and spreading below, which also had a small bustle. Once smitten, she changed into a slash neck striped top, casual cream trousers and cream and tan shoes – very smart. Maria was in a black number with spots, the sailors were dressed as such, Sebastian wore a knitted one-piece swimsuit for his main scene with Antonio, Malvolio was in sombre black until adopting a natty yachting outfit with shorts and cross-gartered yellow stockings and the remaining men’s outfits were light-coloured suits. Actually, I reckon Steve’s right about the Edwardian period now I’ve listed it all.
This production managed to start with both a reference to the shipwreck and the regular opening line. At first there was the sound of thunder, then shortly afterwards Orsino came through the doors and started the opening speech. This Orsino looked pretty rough. He was obviously neglecting himself due to being in the pangs of love, and he was really determined to get Olivia to marry him. The next scene had the sea captain carrying Viola on to the stage (how they must pray for a light actress) and he was already taking the male clothes out of the bag while she was finding out where she was and who lived there. I didn’t find the emotional aspects of her situation coming across so much this time, and Victoria Hamilton, although excellent with her facial expressions, did lack some of the vocal clarity of the rest of the cast. Being so much to one side I lost some of her dialogue when she was facing away from us, though the rest of the cast were fine.
Olivia may have looked to be in strict mourning, but her sense of humour soon peeked through the clouds when Feste got to work. She was obviously fond of him and not too unkind when she reproved Malvolio either. A kind person with a good sense of humour, but absolutely determined not to marry Orsino (relishing her freedom now she’s her own woman, perhaps, grief or no grief) and equally determined that the household routine was not to be disturbed. (A smart move – look what happens in Uncle Vanya.) Malvolio was suitably stern, and there may have been some looks passed between him and Feste, but on the whole his antics were restricted to the letter scene and the yellow stockings scene.
When Cesario arrived and asks which of the two women present was the mistress of the house, only Olivia had her veil on and was sitting on the chaise longue. Maria was standing up behind her, so Viola’s question showed more cheekiness than usual, as often Olivia gets Maria to veil herself as well. Their banter put Maria out as well, and the dispute with Olivia about the wooing got quite sparky. However, Viola’s passion for Orsino, expressed in her words to Olivia, noticeably thawed the ice, and Olivia is quick to check out the youth’s credentials (not the physical ones).
Sebastian and Antonio made their first appearance, and although there was no obvious signs of the homosexuality that dogs many a production, it was clear that Antonio was smitten. Sebastian was as straightforward as his sister, and with their matching costumes, he was easy to identify. Incidentally, Olivia was still sitting on the chaise during this scene,the lights lowered on that part of the stage, and didn’t leave till this scene was over. I have no idea why.
Viola’s deductions from the ring that Malvolio ‘returns’ to her were nicely done. She figured out the message and was more appalled than amused by it, clearly feeling that there would be trouble ahead until Time sorts things out (she’s not wrong).
Sir Toby and Sir Andrew were an excellent pairing. We’d already seen them drunk in the morning, now we got to see them even drunker at night. Sir Toby was a rogue, but it seemsedbe less out of malice than out of the bottle. He might make a decent husband to Maria, and they certainly match each other in practical jokes. I was very aware this time that Sir Toby’s ploy to get Sir Andrew to challenge Cesario to a duel was the complementary trick to Maria’s letter – wooing by japes, as it were. Sir Andrew, played by Guy Henry, was suitably foppish without being ridiculously over the top. His dancing was very funny, and his reaction of surprise and delight when he finally realised what Maria intended with the letter was excellent.
Sir Toby was much smarter than Sir Andrew, and realised almost as soon as Maria mentioned the idea what she was planning. She clearly thought of the idea as she was talking, and worked it out in front of them. Malvolio has certainly been unpleasant to all of them, although I felt this time, as I often do, that late night carousing when others are trying to sleep is not the most considerate way to treat one’s fellow human beings. (I once shared a flat with four students when I was a working woman, so I say this with feeling and some experience of the subject.) Anyway, playing this joke on Malvolio didn’t seem so unkind as it sometimes does; the man needed to be taken down a peg or two, although how it turned out is another matter.
As to the singing, I must mention that Zubin Varla was very good with all of Feste’s songs. Not the strongest voice, perhaps, but smooth, light and very pleasant. The tunes used gave a sense of Elizabethan style (at least they did to me) and they also included an attempt at the final verse of the Twelve Days Of Christmas, with the trio failing miserably to remember the words until the five gold rings part, and then breaking out into raucous song.
The relationship between Orsino and Cesario/Viola became clearer with the next scene as they listened to Feste’s song, Come Away Death. He wasn’t fancying him/her as in some other productions, but he was very fond of him/her and casually laid his head on his/her leg while the music played. She was a bundle of nerves, desperate to be this close to him as a woman but terrified of revealing herself. She still managed to come up with some good reasoning about women’s faithfulness and ability to love.
Now for the wonderful letter scene. I am coming to the conclusion that this scene is so well written that it would be hard not to have the audience in stitches, but I don’t want to imply that the actors have an easy time of it, nor that they aren’t doing a fantastic job. This lot did an excellent job, starting with Sir Toby and Sir Andrew’s arrival. Sir Toby was carrying a bag with some bottles(?) while Sir Andrew had a folded up windbreak over his shoulder. Casting Ron Cook as Sir Toby had one practical advantage here, as Guy Henry could swing the windbreak round and have it pass over Sir Toby’s head nicely, much to our amusement. They set it up in the part of the stage we couldn’t see so well – back right – but we got enough of the performance to enjoy it. The letter was left sticking up between two floorboards and Maria took the place of Fabian, joining the two knights behind the windbreak.
Derek Jacobi as Malvolio played the whole scene very straight. He was preening himself and practising how to be even more pompous and arrogant as ever, while the hidden threesome made their comments and popped up from behind their shelter from time to time. At one point they were all three peeping out from the side of it, as in the silent comedy films.
Malvolio actually stepped over the letter before registering its presence, which was funny, and then the reading was just hilarious. His agony over the cryptic M-O-A-I was followed by the delight of realising that his name began with ‘M’, and the subsequent struggle to relate the sequence of letters was soon abandoned as the prose part gave him the absolute conviction that all his dreams had come true. The smiling took some time to get, with many a contortion appropriate to a face that hadn’t practised the technique for many a year, but his final breakthrough into a hideous grimace was warmly received by one and all. Exit Malvolio followed shortly afterwards by the eavesdroppers, and then by us for the interval.
The second half was heralded by Feste coming onto stage with a drum and playing it for quite a few minutes. It was very pleasant, and gradually built up as we got closer to the restart. Cesario entered at the back and stood listening for a while, until the drumming stopped. The question about the tabor was even more relevant this time. Viola’s comments about the difficulties of earning a living as a fool were cut, the first actual cut I’d noticed, although with a running time of two and a half hours there had to be lots. Olivia brought out a mat to lie on – planning some sunbathing from the looks of it – and even got Cesario to sit beside her on it for a short while. Olivia was much more sprightly, even flirtatious – so much for grieving over her brother. She didn’t actually jump Cesario’s bones but she looked like she wanted to. She wasn’t happy at being rebuffed again, and as she left Sir Andrew was also in the process of leaving, carrying his bag. Sir Toby, stealing most of Fabian’s lines, persuaded him to stay and lured him into challenging Cesario. After they left, Sebastian arrived in his swimsuit and started drying himself while he chatted to Antonio.
The next scene is the second comedy classic – the arrival of Malvolio in yellow stockings and cross-gartered. It’s always fun to see how they do this, and today was no exception. Having mastered the smile, Malvolio has matched it with a pair of knee-length shorts, a captain’s jacket and hat, yellow socks and a pair of x-shaped garters below each knee. The effect was as repulsive as it sounds and therefore extremely funny. Olivia was appalled and soon ran off to see Cesario, leaving Malvolio to the not-so-tender care of the very people who wished him ill.
After Malvolio left, Sir Andrew brought his challenge, and the reactions from Sir Toby and Maria told us all we need to know about how badly he’d written it. The interchanges with the two reluctant duellists seemed shorter than usual, and I felt they got less out of them than before, but the ‘fight’ was still good fun. Antonio entered and was arrested, and Cesario’s refusal to give him his purse started the long chain of events that leads to the ‘happy’ ending. It can be difficult to show why Viola doesn’t just accept that her brother is in fact alive and well, similar to the problem in The Comedy Of Errors, but here I thought she was so convinced that her brother was dead that she hesitated to believe it in case it turned out not to be true.
Now Sebastian really did turn up, and after fighting Sir Andrew briefly and almost fighting Sir Toby, Olivia turned up and stopped all this silly boys’ stuff. Then came probably the shortest bit of wooing in any of the plays, if you don’t count the amount of effort that’s gone into courting Cesario, and Olivia was absolutely delighted when Sebastian very quickly agreed to anything she wanted. Yippee!
The darkened room that Malvolio is in was represented by a hinged trapdoor raised about a foot off the floor. I think there were bars at this ‘window’, but it was dark so I couldn’t see very well. The gulling of Malvolio was much as usual, and this time it was very clear that Sir Toby knew he was out of favour and wanted to put an end to the joke. To differentiate between Sir Topaz and himself, Feste turned somersaults over the trapdoor – very impressive.
After the short scene where Sebastian agreed to go and marry Olivia, Orsino turned up at her door and has some banter with Feste, who went off to call Olivia. Antonio arrived, guarded, and then Olivia turned up, still determined not to marry Orsino. It was clear she favoured Cesario and that Orsino knew this. He and Cesario were only halfway across the stage towards the killing grounds when Olivia’s “husband” brought them back, and Cesario found he/she has a lot of explaining to do. Not that he/she has a clue how to go about it.
Sir Andrew’s arrival with a bloody head led to more confusion; when he saw the person he thought he was fighting where he doesn’t expect him to be, he was startled and also scared, keeping well away from Cesario just in case. I don’t remember if Sir Toby spotted him as well, but the knights were soon removed and as Sebastian ran on to the stage he and Viola changed places, he at the front, she at the back. The rest of the characters were gobsmacked, and the truth finally came out. Viola and Sebastian were together in the middle of the stage, and when Orsino went over to them to offer marriage to Viola, he took her by the arm and walked over to Olivia. At first I thought they were avoiding the mistaken identity option, but no. He left Viola with Olivia and walked back to Sebastian to make his proposal. Oops. It’s soon sorted, though, and then Malvolio’s letter was read out, I forget by whom, as Feste is appropriately inappropriate when he tried to read it. Malvolio was in a dirty version of the same outfit when he came on, and his “I’ll be revenged…” was said quietly to Feste first (he had just reminded him of the insult to his clowning abilities) and then he opened out the “on the whole pack of you” to include the wider group. I think that during Feste’s final song, we saw Sir Andrew leaving, bag packed, followed by Sir Toby and Maria, or Lady Maria I suppose by then, but I couldn’t swear to it. At any rate, we applauded for quite a while, as we’d enjoyed ourselves so much.
This was a straightforward, clear production, which pretty much allowed the text to do the work. The performances were very good, and the staging as simple and direct as I would expect from the Donmar. Despite cutting the comments about a fool’s job not being easy, I still found I was very aware of the difficult position of the servants in this society and how much easier life was for the aristocrats. Good fun, and I’m very glad we booked again to see it.
© 2009 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me