The new RSC production of Twelfth Night is visually stunning and musically opulent. This, the play by Shakespeare that has most reference to music and its powers, has a lovely and almost non-stop score in the background and foreground throughout.
The concept of moving the story from the 1590s to the London of the 1890s works without jarring and sets up fascinating resonances and echoes in our mind. The play and its brilliant, poetic text are in no way diminished or made to jar with this updating. Christopher Luscombe must get full credit for this concept (and for his detailed character-driven direction) along with Simon Higlett’s memorable design of Orsino and Olivia’s homes, a railway station, a garden with statues, etc. The sets are completely evocative of the era and its architecture and design. Luscombe and composer Nigel Hess also play with invoking the musical hall/Gilbert and Sullivan D’Oyly Carte popular entertainments of the late 19th century. But the well-known story and the confused and ambiguous sexual attractions and relationships remain central, along with strong flashes of sadness, poignancy and even danger as we work through the various confusions and ambitions of the various characters and the serious trick played on Malvolio that seems to end up going just that bit too far. There is great fun and hilarity in this production; but also an understanding of the poignancies in the tale and dangers that lurk beneath the surface.
Referencing the British Raj of the updated setting, Dinita Gohil and Esh Alladi are well matched as ship-wrecked Indian twins, making them exotic and utterly fascinating, at one with the Orientalism of the period; and Beruce Khan is a superb Feste, serving Kara Tointon’s beautiful Olivia as Abdul Karim served Queen Victoria. John Hodgkinson’s Sir Toby Belch and Michael Cochrane’s Andrew Agucheek are superbly contrasted physically, emotionally and intellectually; and they have wonderful moments of comedy and pathos throughout. At the end Toby Belch’s anger and disdain for Aguecheek are painful. Someone near me actually gasped. His nastiness parallels, echoes and almost outdoes Adrian Edmondson’s scary threat of revenge as a tortured, tricked and humiliated Malvolio learns about how he has been abused at the end. This production does not shirk the darker side. Nicholas Bishop’s attractive Orsino is first seen as a painter who brings to mind a distant echo of the story of Dorian Gray. And the kiss he gives Viola when she is disguised as Cesario helps one remember the life and the trials of the Oscar Wildes of that era.
But ultimately this is, as billed, What You Will in terms of inviting various interpretations. The overall impact of the production is one of delight and true comedy with some lovely and lively swipes at the conventions and entertainments of fin-de-siècle London. Fabian is turned into a memorable scullery maid by Sarah Twomey and Vivien Parry’s Maria is a strong presence able to believably propel the plot against the officious, irritating, smugly Puritanical Malvolio. Note must also be taken of Giles Taylor as a sad and sympathetic Antonio, with his strong Whitmanesque love for Sebastian and his green carnation.
Kara Tointon is excellent as Olivia. One can easily believe that she is the object of so much desire. And the production also has something to say about the class system and master-servant or mistress-servant relationships and how far one can exercise one’s choices or free will.
Beautiful to look at, lovely to listen to (both the text and the music) played with great verve and a strong sense of both the comic and poignant aspects of the story and the relationships, this is a treasurable Twelfth Night. And it is to be broadcast live to cinemas around the world on Valentine’s Day 2018.