By William Shakespeare
Directed by Edward Hall
Venue: Yvonne Arnaud Theatre
Date: Wednesday 14th November 2012
What a difference five years and an almost complete change of cast can make! When we saw this production in May 2007, it was paired with The Taming Of The Shrew, the latter being part of the RSC’s Complete Works Festival. Although we like the actors involved in that ensemble, we just didn’t care for their take on these plays, so it was always going to be interesting to see this revival.
The set and staging were almost identical, but the performances were so different that we enjoyed ourselves enormously. They blended the dark and light aspects of this tricky comedy perfectly, and while we missed Tony Bell’s version of Feste, Liam O’Brien did an excellent job as well; not so much a Lord of Misrule this time, but still a strong character and with a lovely voice too. He played a guitar of some sort instead of a fiddle, but the music was still beautiful.
The start was the same, with Christopher Heyward’s Orsino being wonderfully melodramatic in his love-sickness. I was reminded of The Woman Hater at the Orange Tree (January 2008), with the over-the-top couple the Wilmots giving us plenty of laughs at their absurd over-reactions to events. Orsino’s behaviour seemed more in keeping with the grief theme than any form of love, and it also made me think that both he and Olivia are over-reacting to their situations – playing the drama queens – and that Viola and Sebastian bring them back to earth. I was keen to see how Olivia would be played in this respect, and Ben Allen did indeed play the role in keeping with Orsino’s portrayal, all moody and over-sensitive.
During the storm and shipwreck scene, I noticed a large glass bottle with a sailing ship in it which was held up as part of the choreographed storm movements. I suspect this was present in the previous version but I either didn’t notice it or didn’t note it down. The sea captain had some nicely detailed reactions to Viola’s dialogue, which isn’t normally the case.
Maria was played by Gary Shelford this time, who gave a much more memorable performance than the previous Maria. ‘She’ had a very expressive face, giving knowing winks or being serious when required, and really brought the part to life. This casting also explained her affinity with Sir Toby, as it made her a distant cousin of Bardolph (Gary’s role in Henry V). She moved round the stage during her first conversation with Sir Toby, removing the remaining dust sheets and putting the chairs upright. Vince Leigh was an affable Sir Toby, tetchy at times but too much of a drinker to be a real menace – it’s Maria who tricks Malvolio after all. He didn’t throw up properly on stage this time, just gushed some liquid out of his mouth – unpleasant, but not as gross as the earlier version. Sir Andrew, played by John Dougall, was older than usual and the humour was less obvious, but his pathetic attempts to join in and impress people were still good fun, and the sadness behind his silliness was plain to see. He held a long pause before the line “I was adored once, too”, and Sir Toby snatched off his ridiculous wig in the final scene, leaving him exposed and humiliated.
I didn’t realise at first that it was Viola who came through one of the wardrobes and took a grey jacket off the rail, but I did notice the flower in her hair about the same time she did; she threw it away to complete her disguise, and then Curio, in Valentine’s absence, started the next scene. I was concerned that I might not spot the difference between the twins, as both had bleached blond hair and were very similar in looks, but there was enough variation for me to know who was who. I found that Joseph Chance’s Viola was much more manly in disguise as Cesario, and while that lost some aspects of Orsino and Olivia’s confusion in their attraction to the ‘boy’, it did emphasise for me the general sense of ambiguous sexuality pervading the play. This was heightened by Antonio’s attraction to Sebastian which was shown to be clearly physical, although Antonio tried to hide it by making excuses for his ‘love’. Sebastian was uncomfortable with this affection (not averse to Olivia’s advances, fortunately) and I was conscious that Antonio was probably falling in love with Viola through her brother, as Olivia falls in love with Sebastian through his sister.
Olivia warmed up nicely to Feste’s fooling, while Malvolio (Chris Myles) glowered in the background. Chris is shorter than usual for this role, which added another dimension to Malvolio’s arrogance and self-regard. He played the steward’s role pretty straight, until the reveal of the yellow stockings, that is. He also had a badger goatee, with two dark grey strips on either side of a white one, which added to the impression of pomposity.
When Olivia sent the ring after Cesario, she had a devil of a job getting it off her finger, which got a laugh. Sebastian’s description of his sister to Antonio was emphasised by having him look into one of the wardrobe mirrors as he talked, while Viola stood on the other side and the lighting allowed her face to show through.
The late night drinking party went very well to begin with. Feste’s first song was very pleasant, and Sir Andrew and even Sir Toby added some extra vocals. The catch was as rowdy as one could wish, and when Maria turned up I was slightly distracted by the vivid red fluffy mules she was wearing. Mind you, that was nothing compared to the fact that Malvolio had taken the trouble to put his chain of office round his neck over his dressing gown before accosting the reprobates who were having a drunken orgy downstairs. It was a nice touch, and said a lot about Malvolio’s character.
Feste had to leg it pretty quick over to the Duke’s court for the next scene, where he was called on to sing yet another song. Orsino listened to it while sitting on the coffin (oops, forgot to mention that, just wait a bit) with Cesario sitting beside him. During this song, Cesario adopted a more feminine posture, and as Orsino was affected by the song and became emotional, Cesario ended up holding him until Orsino tore himself away at the end of the song.
The coffin: it was brought on when Olivia first arrived and sat centre back, then it was brought forward for the following scenes. Feste lay in it at one point, probably during the drunken revel. As I recall, it was taken off when the stage was cleared for the letter scene, and the triangular box trees were brought on instead. There seemed to be more of them this time, two sets of five, and there were three statues at the back, the same as before. The plinth for Olivia’s statue was front right, and again the statue held the letter out for Malvolio to spot, with two fingers sticking up at him all the while. Sir Andrew’s question about “her c’s, her u’s and her t’s” was answered by Sir Toby whispering in his ear, after which Sir Andrew smothered a laugh and disappeared behind the shrubbery again.
With Fabian not present, Feste took part again in this scene. The other masked actors did plenty of sound effects to cover the noise of the hidden men, mostly in the form of birds cawing and flying off. The statues were more active than the people, and were constantly reforming, often including one of the characters as well. Malvolio was too excited at his discovery to notice much, and rushed through the letter without losing clarity, although his hands were trembling. The “revolve” led to the letter itself being rotated vertically, and his final grimacing ‘smile’ was a sight to behold! The first half ended with Maria’s explanation of the trick and their exit.
No songs during the interval, sadly, but there was plenty of music at the start of the second half on stage. Viola interrupted this with her question to Feste, and the rest of the masked men gradually eased themselves off stage till they were alone for their conversation about cheverel gloves. After Feste left, Sir Toby and Sir Andrew came along, and Sir Andrew was again completely flummoxed by Cesario’s simple French reply to his own greeting.
Olivia seemed to come to terms with Cesario’s refusal to enter into a personal relationship with her, but her feelings got the better of her and she ended up on the floor, clutching Cesario’s hands in a desperate attempt to persuade him to stay – no chance. Sir Andrew entered for the next scene carrying a large suitcase and a smaller bag, and began packing his clothes which were on the rail. Sir Toby and Feste manipulated him into writing a challenge, and then Maria arrived to inform them that Malvolio was about to make a fool of himself.
Sebastian and Antonio’s scene was straightforward, and then Olivia came back for her first encounter with the new Malvolio. He leaned on the side of the door, grinning broadly at her, until stepping forward to strip off his trousers and reveal what lay underneath. Yellow stockings covered in black fishnet tights were complimented by a leather studded codpiece of considerable proportions. We laughed, and kept on laughing as Malvolio chased Olivia round the stage. Then when Sir Toby, Feste and Maria turned up, they had to use a large syringe to sedate him, leaving him fast asleep at the front of the stage as Feste delivered the “improbable fiction” line to much laughter.
Sir Andrew’s outfit for the fight scene was almost as funny as Malvolio’s. He still wore his evening jacket but with white satin boxing shorts and boxing gloves, and his hair was pulled up through the holes in his protective helmet giving him a very strange and funny appearance. The challenge was read out, with Maria giving Fabian’s responses. The mock duel was well done, with lots of struggling to avoid the fight on the part of both duellers, and never a blow struck in earnest with the boxing gloves. Antonio soon parted them and was arrested, and Cesario reacted noticeably to the mention of Sebastian’s name.
The real Sebastian threw Antonio’s purse at Feste to get rid of him – very generous – and after his fight with Sir Toby he was quite happy to accept Olivia’s offer of entertainment, while she was absolutely thrilled at his acceptance. With two such similar ‘twins’, there was no difficulty believing that one could be mistaken for the other, quite a change from recent productions.
The stage was darkened for the next scene, with Maria, Sir Toby and Feste up on top of the wardrobes looking down on Malvolio beneath them. Malvolio was down to only the codpiece this time, and chained up. Sir Topas stayed up on the wardrobe for his initial conversation with Malvolio, while Feste came down afterwards to talk to the man directly. Sir Toby’s parting instruction to Maria – “Come by and by to my chamber” – suggested a close personal encounter was in the offing.
Sebastian was again in bed for the start of the next scene, and again the sheet which he’d wrapped around himself fell off when Olivia arrived with the priest – nice. Fabian’s request to see the letter was dropped, so the next scene began with Orsino’s entrance and rattled along very nicely, with all the fun of the revelations and a few sniffles as well. The reunion between the twins was moving; it was understandable that they would both be reluctant to believe the evidence of their eyes, given what they’d been through.
Maria was on stage for this scene, although she did try to sneak off when the letter was handed to Olivia. No such luck; she was called back, and gave Fabian’s speech, suitably altered, in which she announced her marriage to Sir Toby and flashed her ring, a large gaudy one, at the assembled throng. Malvolio mustered some dignity as he limped off, and the performance ended with Feste’s final song. Despite this seeming a rather downbeat ending, we were all very happy as we applauded, and even carried on singing the song as we left. A huge improvement on last time, and a reminder that it’s well worth seeing this sort of production more than once, as even with the same cast there can be lots of changes.
© 2012 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me