Twelfth Night – March 2012

7/10 (preview)

By William Shakespeare

Directed by David Farr

Venue: RST

Date: Thursday 22nd March 2012

This was an excellent production with very good performances, and a huge improvement on last night. The set was by the same designer, Jon Bausor, and used the same basic design. The floorboards were still there, and there was still no walkway front left. This time the corner area did have water in it, and we were reminded of Singing In The Rain at Chichester last year, so sitting in row C, right by the aisle, we were glad Steve brought a carrier bag to protect the program. As it happened, the ‘tsunami’ didn’t wash up as far as our row, but there were a few wayward splashes – warm water, of course – and others who were nearer did feel the effect. The staff were very good in the interval, sorting out any problems, though some in the audience may have wished they’d provided more of a warning beforehand as well as the towels that were so freely available after the first half!

The crane track had become a girder tonight, and was partly boxed in. There was another girder at right angles to it, also partly covered, and around the join there was an area of crumbling ceiling, very reminiscent of the industrial grunge set of David Farr’s King Lear a few years ago, also a Jon Bausor design. The metal post with ironwork was more visible tonight, and it turned out to be a whole row of them which had been mostly hidden during The Comedy Of Errors. The vertical part of the ramp from yesterday seemed to be at a couple of different angles tonight creating a slightly lower angle, and tonight the objects on there included a bed (reminded Steve of the recent Taming bed, much reduced in size) and a table with a lamp. There was also a bathtub suspended over that general area – took me a while to spot what it was. Behind all of this I could now see the back wall of metal with at least two portholes in it. It’ll be interesting to see how this develops for The Tempest.

At the back of the thrust and to the right of the stage a sloping ramp led off, and was blocked by a revolving door set at the same slanting angle. Just to the left of that was the reception desk area, with lots of pigeonholes behind a short curve of desk. A small screen to the right of this desk, combined with a telephone, allowed Maria to observe who was at the gate, which was a nice touch. This was also the hiding place for Sir Toby, Sir Andrew and Fabian during the letter scene. To the left of that was a pillar leaning drunkenly, with a leather seat around it; the leather looked the worse for wear as did most of the furniture on stage. Further to the left was another leather armchair, and beside that a large globe with the land areas positioned round an open mesh. Behind this chair, towards the back of the stage, was a lift, the old fashioned kind with expanding metal doors. With a small platform beside it at the top, the lift shaft was encased in a metal mesh, so we could see a lot of what went on inside it, though it was used for a magnificent reveal later on. Further to the left, a flight of stairs led up to the first balcony, and below that stood a grand piano with a picture of Olivia’s brother on it surrounded by candles, flowers, etc. I didn’t spot this right away, but then there was so much else to look at.

Coming forwards, there was a low padded stool over on the front right of the stage which seemed to have a chess board set up on it; there was still room for people to sit on it or put a tray with coffee things there if need be. A plain chair sat further back from that, while over on the water side there was a diving board built out from almost the centre of the stage to just over the water. The floorboards had a ragged end, in keeping with the style of set, and some dipped down towards the water. The only other thing I remember at this time was the chandelier, which was swathed in black cloth. I first noticed it when someone in Olivia’s household switched it on, a nice reminder of her emphatic mourning.

The costumes were all modern dress, and worked very well I thought. The men usually wore suits, although Sir Toby was in casual gear with a colourful Hawaiian shirt, and Sir Andrew tended towards casual sportswear. Olivia’s maidservants wore black dresses with white aprons, and Malvolio was immaculate in his pinstripe suit, toupee severely slicked down to one side. There were two guards in uniform – white shirts, black trousers – and Antonio wore a large waterproof jacket. Olivia was in black for the first half, a calf-length dress, and changed to a flower print frock during the second half, via an ivory wedding dress. I’ll describe the Viola/Sebastian combo later, along with the nifty outfit Malvolio chose to impress Olivia with.

So to the staging (this may take some time). When the lights went down at the start, I saw various actors come on and take up their positions, mostly lying down. I thought we were going to get the shipwreck stuff first tonight, as the performance opened with Viola emerging suddenly from the water (there’s a long slide apparently, so they don’t have to hold their breath for too long). She stood up in the water, then clambered out, and turning to the audience she asked “What country, friends, is this?” She then spotted the bag lying by the side of the water; it was clearly Sebastian’s, and she knelt there, grieving over the bag and her lost brother while Duke Orsino leapt up, from the chair I think, and carried on with “If music be the food of love”. He was in a pretty rough state with his clothes dishevelled, as you might expect. The good news was that from the beginning tonight we could hear almost every line perfectly well – no worries there. After this scene, the sea captain continued by answering Viola’s opening question, coming on from the back somewhere and bringing on a blanket for her to use. He agreed to help her disguise herself, and I was very aware that with her brother’s bag she would naturally have some of Sebastian’s clothes to wear.

Sir Toby emerged through the revolving door for the next scene, and was as drunk as a skunk, if not drunker (apologies to skunk-lovers, and indeed, skunks everywhere). I think a servant may have switched on the chandelier at this point, but I’m not sure. Sir Toby sat in the armchair, and dangled his feet over the side when he was talking about his boots. Maria was brisk in her chiding, and for once Sir Toby seemed to be in earnest when he complimented Sir Andrew. Given his state of inebriation, he might actually have believed what he was saying.

Sir Andrew’s arrival a short while later was all we could have wished. We heard his horn before we saw the man, and he entered still wearing his biker’s helmet. When the helmet came off, his fair hair erupted into a tousled mop which got a laugh all on its own. Bruce Mackinnon’s performance was absolutely impeccable, and we were soon warmed up and chuckling away at his wonderfully funny delivery of the lines plus his comic expressions and business. He illustrated the “back-trick” by moonwalking backwards – we applauded, eventually – and when he left the stage the audience was definitely in a livelier mood than when he entered.

Valentine and Cesario came on next, and while Valentine sat on the diving board to light up a cigarette, Cesario stood in the middle of the stage, wearing green trousers, a light blue jacket and a patterned shirt, and also lit up. Her inexperience with cigarettes was obvious – she had the cigarette the wrong way round and nearly lit the filter, then coughed a bit once she did get it going – and then Orsino rushed on, clothes still in disarray, to speak with his new favourite. They didn’t make anything of the other servants being sent away that I could see, which is fine, and during their conversation Orsino took the cigarette from Cesario to smoke it himself. Emily Taafe’s Cesario was well done; with her short hair and slight figure she did look boyish, and her voice was low pitched enough to fit with a young lad, so it was believable that the Duke would see the female aspects of Cesario without realising he was actually a woman.

It was at the end of this scene, after Viola’s “myself would be his wife”, that she stood in the middle of the stage with the lights lowered on her and the rest of Orsino’s staff, and then Sebastian also popped up out of the water, sloshing a bit more onto the floor around that corner. He also stood up, slicked back his hair – Viola echoed that movement – and as they were wearing identical costumes it was clear this was the very Sebastian whom Viola had assumed was drowned. He pulled himself out of the water and lay beside it, resting, while the next couple of scenes played out; a little distracting, but not a problem.

The next scene had Maria scolding Feste this time. She brought on some coffee and cups on a tray and put it on the stool near the front. Feste looked hung over and was wearing sunglasses, wincing a bit as he took them off and the light hit him. The jesting between them was pretty good, and then Olivia turned up with her small entourage. She was pretty snippy with Feste at first, but softened as he wormed his way back into her good books with his catechising of her. For this bit she was sitting in the armchair, and he took another upright chair, placed it beside her with the back of the chair between them, as in a confessional box, while he knelt behind the chair to act the priest, as he would do later, of course, with Malvolio.

Malvolio’s reactions during this scene were excellent. He clutched his folder tightly, looking severe and grimacing when something particularly unpleasant happened, such as somebody having fun, even when it wasn’t at his expense. The animosity between him and Fests was palpable, and set us up nicely for his later mistreatment at the hands of Sir Toby and the rest. Olivia echoed his folded hands when she talked of “a known discreet man”, gently reproving him with those lines.

Maria was using the screen on the reception desk when she informed Olivia that there was someone at the door. Sir Toby seemed even drunker than before when he turned up – a lovely performance by Nicholas Day – and had great difficulty getting his words out, the way drunks do when they have to think long and hard about everything, like words, walking, breathing, etc. He reminded me of Frank Gallagher in Shameless at this point.

When Malvolio returned he was clearly disturbed to have spent time with someone who upset the natural order. Olivia had some trouble getting him to describe the young gentleman, and as her back was to me at the relevant point, I’m not sure what it was that piqued her interest enough to have the young man brought before her. She had her maids cover themselves as well, and as at least one of them took off her apron as well, I could see how difficult it would be for anyone who didn’t know the household to tell which woman was Olivia. All four of them sat or stood around the room, so when Cesario arrived, he was immediately unsure of himself.

The dialogue was well done for this bit, and soon Olivia and Cesario were alone. Olivia was well unhappy at Cesario’s insult regarding the tenacity of her looks, but I didn’t spot any particular reaction from Cesario on finding out how beautiful his ‘rival’ was. Later, when Cesario was telling Olivia of the lengths he would go to if he loved her as Orsino does, my view was blocked by Olivia herself, so I’ll have to pick up on their expressions next time, but even from the back I could tell that Cesario’s passion was having an effect on the lady.

That effect continued through Cesario’s departure and her reflections on the speedy nature of infatuation. There was such a loving glow about her that when she gave her ring to Malvolio – she turned her back on him and removed it from a chain about her neck by ripping it off, hiding the chain in her hand – he mistook her radiance combined with the way she put her hand on his arm as a sign of affection towards him, another pointer to his later misapprehension of the letter.

Finally Sebastian was able to get up from the floor, as he responded to Antonio’s question. Their conversation was short, and for once I could have sworn Sebastian actually mentioned Viola’s name, but it’s not in my text and apart from some lovely comedic touches later on, I didn’t spot any significant changes during the play. They did cut some lines, but that’s to be expected. Cesario entered next, and shortly after she came on we heard a beeping sound. It turned out to be the sound of one of those trolley cars, as used by the elderly, only this time it was being driven by Malvolio. Health and safety requirements were well to the fore, as the beeping noises continued throughout the scene (my hearing aids were going nuts!) as well as two flashing amber lights. I liked this staging very much; it not only explained how Malvolio managed to catch up with Cesario, but gave us an extra laugh as he drove the cart round in a large circle before parking it near the back, so we could all see the sign on the back of the seat: For Management Use Only. The ring was dropped contemptuously on the rug in front of the chair (stops it rolling away, I would guess) and after Viola had finished sharing her thoughts on this latest development, she threw it into the water tank. No real splash; it was too small.

Sometime earlier I had noticed an actor sneak on to the left of the stage and lie down behind the piano. I wasn’t sure who it was, but it now became clear – it was Sir Toby, who struggled to his feet to advise Sir Andrew, likewise well gone, on the exact nature of ‘early’. They were both wonderfully drunk, so drunk that a rowdy song was inevitable, and I enjoyed this scene from beginning to end. Feste wasn’t as bad as the other two, but he joined in the merriment, and even took a picture of the three of them together at the appropriate moment on his mobile phone – “Did you ever see the picture of we three?”

Feste had brought on something I didn’t recognise at the start of this scene, and left it on the stool at the front. When he sang ‘O mistress mine, where are you roaming’, this turned out to be an electronic keyboard of some kind, which he used to accompany the song. He also used a microphone. It was a slow, melancholy number, and nicely done. They were soon into the livelier number ‘Hold thy peace’ – I think they cut Sir Andrew’s line about constraining “one to call me knave” – with Sir Toby and Sir Andrew playing bottles, and Feste using the reception desk bell as his instrument. This expanded into Feste banging an oar on the floor, Sir Toby possibly using the microphone(?) and something equally noisy from Sir Andrew.

Maria couldn’t persuade them to keep quiet, and when Malvolio turned up in his dressing gown he was suitably nasty to them all. He even grabbed Maria’s arm when she went to get some wine for Sir Toby, and she was quite shaken by his threat to tell Olivia. The plan to trick Malvolio is always hers, but often the others, especially Sir Toby, are involved to some extent; this time the others are on no fit state to devise any plan whatsoever. Sir Toby’s enquiry as to the reason for Sir Andrew to beat a puritan was dropped (worked well for me, especially as the line itself got a good laugh).

I’m not sure when it happened, but sometime during the first half Sir Andrew took a little dip. (The trouble with non-textual business is that it’s harder to remember where it occurred.) He was sitting on the end of the diving board, with Feste beside him, and I noticed he was gradually edging further back. Finally he fell off, and caused a huge wave of water to wash over the side of the tank, soaking anything on the ground level around it. (Programs were replaced.) I reckon this must have been the scene, presumably when Malvolio turned up, but I really can’t be sure – I’ll pay closer attention next time.

Back at the Duke’s court, Orsino was looking all rumpled again. His chat with Cesario about love was fine, and then Feste turned up again to sing his song ‘Come away death’. He used a guitar this time for accompaniment, but I thought it was little out of tune; he only strummed it occasionally so I wasn’t sure. (It’s always a problem with stringed instruments, bringing them onto a stage under lights – changes the tuning horribly.) I enjoyed his comments to Orsino this time about his mind being an opal; they came across much better than I remember from previous productions. After Cesario’s story of his ‘sister’, which was OK but I missed some of the visuals again, they left the stage and we were into the letter scene.

Fabian made the third in this production, a nice performance by Felix Hayes. The ‘box-tree’ they hid behind was actually the reception desk, and for most of the letter-reading they were peering over the desk with an object held in front of each of them – a vase of flowers, a book and a soda siphon. When one of them made an exclamation, he put down his object, and then had to grab the item held by the person next to him, which went down the line, so the objects were being passed around on a regular basis. Later, Sir Toby left the shelter of the desk and wandered over behind the pillar seat, which he had to dive under to hide himself once or twice. It was all wonderfully funny, including Sir Andrew’s recognition of himself as a “foolish knight”.

Maria left the letter on the stool, propped up on the chessboard I think, which didn’t seem a very obvious place to leave it. Even so, Malvolio managed to spot it, after he’d done a lot of preening and primping beforehand, of course. There was a slight adjustment to the toupee, and a fair amount of posturing, but the main comedy lay in the delivery of the lines, and the comments by the watchers. For “revolve”, Malvolio went over to the revolving door and did a circuit there.  His “smiling” was also funny, although he did actually produce some leering smiles from time to time before that. Maria was anxious to know if her trick had worked, and Sir Toby literally prostrated himself before her when she first came on, so delighted was he with their success.

Next up was Feste, sitting on the pillar seat with his keyboard, playing a little music, so when Cesario came along their conversation began very naturally. The chat with Sir Toby and Sir Andrew was brief but funny, and then Olivia came along to make her declaration of love to Cesario. Rebuffed, the first half ended with her sitting sad and alone on the stage, with the lights going out.

The second half began with Sir Andrew’s determination to leave immediately. He was on his mobile phone calling for a taxi at the start, and at some later point in his conversation with Fabian and Sir Toby said ‘yes, I’ll hold’, all very funny. Sir Toby took his mobile away from him, and ditched it in the water at the end of this bit, before Maria arrived to fetch them to see Malvolio. Then there was the short scene between Sebastian and Antonio, followed by the much anticipated arrival of Malvolio on stage.

In this scene, Olivia entered first, and it was clear that she’s been much affected by her passion for Cesario. I think this may be where she pulled a rope at the side of the stage and removed the black cloth from the chandelier; in any case she’s definitely in a state over her situation, having declared her love to a ‘man’ who doesn’t want her. Malvolio’s appearance, far from being the sober, calm presence she wanted, was entirely unsuitable for any occasion. He came down in the lift, and although the walls were see-through, they obscured enough of his costume for it to be a mystery all the way down. I felt this was a good way to make his entrance – we got the full impact all at once, and it was certainly an eyeful!

He was wearing yellow stockings, and they looked a bit tight from where I sat. They were cross-gartered all the way up, which didn’t help the circulation either. He had on a yellow tie which we could see when his jacket opened up, usually when he spread his arms wide, and little else. The posing pouch which adorned his nether regions was well padded (I cast no aspersions) and had studs; apart from that he was butt-naked, literally. This outfit, plus the grinning, would have sent many another woman screaming from the stage, but Olivia was made of sterner stuff. She did back away from him down the diving board, and for a short while I thought we were in for another splash, but at the last minute she grabbed him so she could swivel him around – he enjoyed that bit – and she was free! (And dry!)

Malvolio’s scene with Sir Toby and the rest was very funny too, and I loved Fabian’s line about “an improbable fiction”. With Malvolio gone, the mischief makers moved on to Sir Andrew when he turned up with his freshly drafted challenge. As Sir Toby read it out, I enjoyed Fabian’s comments; Felix Hayes has a deep resonant voice, and his comments of “good” were perfectly timed to make the most of the humour. After Olivia’s short scene with Cesario, Sir Toby and Fabian returned again to issue the challenge to him. Cesario was terrified, of course, and attempted to flee up the stairs to get back to the house. Fabian blocked his way, and as they were struggling on the steps, Sir Andrew came back on via the walkway. Sir Toby’s comment that “Fabian can scarce hold him yonder” was very apt, and gave Sir Andrew completely the wrong impression. Instead of his horse, he offered to give Cesario his Kawasaki 750 – he handed Sir Toby the keys – which fitted very well with the situation.

Each ‘man’ was given something to fight with – not swords as such, just bits of wood – but there was very little chance of them doing any damage as they never got near the other with their wild swings. Not that Antonio noticed this when he arrived and drew on, as he thought, Sebastian’s side. The officers were there amazingly quickly to arrest him – one of them, Solomon Israel, was using a West Indian accent – and Antonio was almost off the stage before he could even ask ‘Sebastian’ for his money. Viola reacted to being called ‘Sebastian’ – this is the first indication she’d had that her brother might be alive – even before her lines indicated that was the way her thoughts were going.

Feste’s argument with Sebastian was good fun – I was increasingly happy with Kevin McMonagle’s interpretation – and the fight with Sir Toby and Sir Andrew went badly as usual. Sebastian had two of them holding him and still managed to break free, although he took a tumble over the chair as a result. This was the turning point for Sir Toby; Olivia was so angry with him for hurting her beloved that even he realised he couldn’t go on causing problems in her household, and although his lines to that effect don’t come till a later scene, his reaction at this point made it clear. I’m not sure exactly when Olivia changed into her summer frock, but I reckon she was wearing it by this time. Sebastian was ready and willing to go along with whatever this beautiful woman wanted, and she was delighted to find him so amenable.

Now the stage was darkened, and I could just make out a vague shape rising up through a trapdoor in the centre of the stage. I did wonder briefly about the mechanics of the water slide vis-à-vis this trapdoor, but that’s a question for a post-show discussion sometime. Up on the platform by the lift, Maria was kitting Feste out with his Sir Topaz outfit, and after Sir Toby arrived, Feste went down in the lift to visit Malvolio. A faint light allowed us to see the poor man, now stripped of his jacket and tied to his cart, which appeared to be broken although the amber lights were flashing (no beeping this time, thank goodness). Feste’s taunting of Malvolio was soon over, and for once I could see the inference that ignorance was a worse form of darkness than the lack of physical light. When Sir Topaz met Feste himself (a neat trick) he slapped him a couple of times before heading back to the lift.

Sebastian came down the stairs from Olivia’s chamber bare-chested (not an ordeal to watch, by any means) and continued to dress himself as he reflected on the strange situation he was in. When Olivia arrived with the priest, decked out in her wedding dress and saying “Blame not this haste of mine”, I suddenly thought she was worried she might start to show a bump before the marriage and lose her reputation. Sebastian was clearly a quick decision-maker, and accepted her offer of marriage on the spot.

Fabian and Feste were next on, and the short exchange between them was good, with Feste giving Fabian Malvolio’s letter and then taking it back again before he’d had a chance to read it. Mind you, he was pretty slow in that department. With the Duke’s arrival we were into the end game, and it all happened pretty fast from here on. At least Orsino had tidied himself up for this visit; instead of his usual scruffiness he looked smart, and his attendants carried the flowers and chocolates which he intended to give to Olivia. Feste’s fooling was well done, and Antonio’s arrival filled the time nicely till Olivia came along.

She was in a foul mood though, at least with Orsino. She dumped his flowers and chocolates in the water, but kept making sheep’s eyes at Cesario. It was so obvious that Orsino would have had to have been even stupider than Sir Andrew not to have spotted it, and this Duke was no fool. He was already going through the revolving door, with Cesario hard on his heels when Olivia’s “husband” called them back. With the priest confirming Olivia’s matrimonial claims, things already looked bad for Cesario when Sir Andrew came through the door with a smear of blood on his forehead. He shied away from Cesario when he saw him, as did Sir Toby who followed shortly afterwards. His line “I hate a drunken rogue” seemed to give him pause, as if he was starting to realise that he may fall into that category himself.

And then Sebastian turned up, went straight over to Olivia and apologised on bended knee for hurting her kinsman. The crowd were all alarmed – seeing twins seems to have that effect in Shakespeare’s plays. Olivia was standing on the board, Viola front right, Orsino back right and Antonio back left at this point. With Sebastian looking at Olivia to begin with, he didn’t notice Viola at all, and then when he saw Antonio and faced him, Viola was directly behind him. When he did turn round, their reunion was as good as I wanted (sniffled, of course), and Olivia for once seemed perfectly happy with her good fortune, after the initial embarrassment of realising that she had actually fallen in love with a woman!

With these twins having a significant difference in their height, they didn’t go in for further mistaken identities this time, which suited me fine. Malvolio made his entrance clad in just his suit trousers this time, and despite Olivia being conciliatory he was too far gone to do anything but snarl his threat of revenge at them before he left. He even included the audience this time, not nice.  The priest was on stage for this final scene, and reacted a bit to Feste’s admission that he impersonated Sir Topaz, though there’s scope for more there I fancy. Orsino and Olivia were well reconciled by the end, and as Feste settled down to sing us the final song, both couples ended up on the bed at the back; first the women perched themselves on it, then the men followed and snuggled up beside their partner. I was again reminded of the Taming production, where Lucy Bailey had commented that the whole point of a comedy is to get two people into bed together: mission accomplished. We gave them a long round of enthusiastic applause, and left well satisfied that we would be seeing this one again.

What else do I need to say at this stage? The lighting was a bit gloomy for me, until the end when a golden glow brightened the stage considerably. Olivia lay on the bed at the back through all the opening scenes, until shortly before she arrived on stage herself. I didn’t realise it was her at first, but as various characters rose up from their positions on the stage to take part in the play, it became obvious who she had to be. We were both very relieved that the problems with delivering the lines which we’d experienced last night with The Comedy Of Errors were not apparent in this performance, so I apologise if any of my comments on that performance reflected badly on the cast; they’re clearly up to the challenge of Shakespeare already, but perhaps the Comedy production just needs longer to settle than this one. This was only the fourth preview performance of this play, with press night scheduled for 25th April (the Comedy press night is a matinee).

© 2012 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

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