Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Monday 13th November, 2017
Director Christopher Luscombe sets his Illyria in the late Victorian era, with Orsino’s court designated as ‘the town’ and Olivia’s estate as ‘the country’. Thus the action is divided along the same lines as The Importance of Being Earnest – the characters even travel between the two by train. There is a distinctly Wildean feel to Duke Orsino’s court. Orsino (Nicholas Bishop) surrounds himself with witty young men, among them Valentine (Tom Byrne) and a rather striking Curio (Luke Latchford) posing almost naked for a painting. Later, we meet Antonio (an elegant and dignified Giles Taylor) who openly declares his love for Sebastian while sporting Oscar Wilde’s green carnation – he even gets arrested!
Washed up into this world of witty men is Viola, who is more than a match for them. Disguising herself as a boy and becoming servant to Orsino, Viola, now Cesario, finds herself falling for the Duke and he for her – although he buys into the disguise. There is a sliding scale to sexuality and Orsino seems skewed toward one end.
Dinita Gohil makes for a bright-eyed and plucky Viola – it is about her fate we care the most. Kara Tointon’s elegant and haughty Olivia becomes more enjoyable as she begins to dote on Cesario. Her protracted period of mourning for a dead brother is clearly to keep Orsino at bay, while Orsino woos by remote control, preferring the company of young men.
As Malvolio, Adrian Edmondson gets across the prudish servant’s pompous officiousness and also his hissing contempt for the others. In his mad, yellow-stockinged scene, he’s more of a cheeky chappie from the music hall; I get the feeling there is more wildness beneath the surface than he lets out. His best moments come at the end when Malvolio, a broken man, comes to realise how he has been played and by whom.
Vivien Parry is excellent as Maria, instigator of the practical joke against Malvolio, bringing a lot of fun and heart to proceedings, but John Hodgkinson’s Sir Toby Belch (who does more farting than belching) has little of the lovable rogue about him. He’s a drunkard, a user and a bully – too much of a mean streak for me. Similarly, Beruce Khan’s Feste is embittered with anger and cruelty, which could be argued to stem from his position, as entertainer to silly white people, but I find the vehemence of his revenge leaves a bitter aftertaste, after an otherwise enjoyable and engaging performance.
There are many high points. The letter scene involves some hilarious comic business with the garden statuary; Michael Cochrane’s Sir Andrew Aguecheek is a posh, bewildered delight; Sarah Twomey’s Fabia is a lot of fun; and songs like ‘O Mistress Mine’ and ‘Come Away, Death’ are beautifully melancholic, even with added Indian beats and instrumentation.
Nigel Hess’s original compositions bring Victorian music hall flavours but at times the music is overpowering. It’s a bit like when an Oscar winner speaks for too long and the orchestra strikes up to play them off. Several scenes suffer from this intrusion. Some of the humour seems heavy-handed: a pack of servants fleeing the mad Malvolio doesn’t quite work for me.
Overall, I like the style. Simon Higlett’s design marries Victorian architecture (hothouses, railway stations) with an autumnal palette. Mortality is ever-present in the piles of dead leaves.
While there is much to admire and enjoy about this lively production with its many fresh ideas, I’m afraid some of the cakes are a little stale and some of the ale is somewhat flat.