Sunday, 20 February 2011

Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare, dir. Peter Hall: review

Twelfth Night has always been one of my favourite Shakespeare plays (and not least because, at the risk of sounding like Polonius, I once played Malvolio...). It inhabits a territory that points towards the weird, late romances (which I favour over the comedies): a shipwreck, lost children, revelations. It is as full of wonder as any of the romances. It's also supremely well-knit, spare and tight, each word doing the job of three or four, its verbal dexterity and shot-silk quality embodied in the words of Feste.

The staging of Sir Peter Hall's production at the National Theatre was also spare. Viola (played by a charmingly gawky Rebecca Hall) stood at the beginning, bereft of everything she has known, her back towards the man who will help her. Orsino's (Martin Csokas) luxurious court was hinted at by three or four cushions (Orsino himself looked like a cushion, wearing a brilliantly long dressing gown of the type which I wish they still made. Barry Lyndon wears one in the Kubrick film, too.) The bare stage focused attention on the actors.

On the aristocratic side, Orsino was debauched, world-weary, commanding his group of courtiers with a languid finger. By contrast, Olivia (Amanda Drew), mourning her brother, was controlled and clearly able to run her household. It struck me that perhaps Olivia senses something missing in Viola - another lost brother - which might aid her infatuation. Drew was almost matronly, which belied her passion; my only difficulty was that one of her best lines ('lips - indifferent red') was swallowed. Sebastian (Ben Mansfield) was a fine, swashbuckling type, although with a slight femininity which maybe draws the captain to him, and helps us to understand the confusion between brother and sister.

Downstairs, Sir Toby Belch was played with malevolent sottishness by Simon Callow. This production really highlighted the cruelty of the trick they play on Malvolio (Simon Paisley Day) - played as a smooth-talking, smooth-dressing major-domo. The imprisonment scene had Malvolio in a tiny cage, blindfolded; with Feste (David Ryall) prancing around him and some sinister violin shrieking, the effect was positively hellish. Sir Andrew Aguecheek was absolutely marvellous, I thought. His foppishness and vanity were given an amiable touch, and Charles Edwards' face provoked many of the biggest laughs. When Malvolio stormed in and shouted 'do you make an alehouse of my lady's?' he nodded fervently as if he were a schoolboy who'd been caught by the headmaster.

Twelfth Night
is a play with no pat ending. Malvolio's last line, 'I'll be revenged - on the whole pack of you!' resonated loudly, and pointed towards the ambiguity of the solution to everyone's problems. Only Viola gets her true love; Olivia makes do with a copy, whilst Orsino's decision is based on practicality.

And Feste - when I first saw him I thought they'd made a terrible mistake. He was old, shrivelled. But then as the play went on I realised what a masterstroke it was. To have him singing 'youth's a stuff will not endure' gains extra poignancy. Feste's wildly wisecracking wit turns everything on its head: the fool is no fool, and Ryall's wizened old man showed in bold colours quite how full of wisdom he is. He sang in a slightly-out of tune warble (though trying to get the audience to join in at the end was not a good idea, I thought.)

It was a stately production, perhaps a little lacking in energy, but that added to its sense of elegy. 'Come Away Death', let's not forget, is one of the songs in it; and the Fool's song is repeated in King Lear.

I'll never forget my school production of Twelfth Night. One of the boys in my year, Will Ings, had composed a tune for 'Come Away...' It was haunting, and beautifully effective, and I wish I had a recording. It surfaced in my mind towards the end, and I was nearly brought to tears.

[I still harbour a deep love of the film version with Helena Bonham-Carter.]

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