Theatre review: Twelfth Night

Posted on: 11 January 2010 by Mark O'haire

Laurence Green reviews Shakespeare’s romantic comedy of mistaken identity, infatuation and broken hearts at the Duke of York’s Theatre.

The timing could not be more apt for the RSC’s new festive production of Shakespeare’s romantic comedy of mistaken identity, infatuation and broken hearts, namely Twelfth Night (Duke of York’s Theatre, London).

The Duke of Orsino, an incurable romantic, is in love with his neighbour, the wealthy countess Olivia. She, however, has shut herself away in mourning for her dead brother, and remains aloof.

Meanwhile, on the coast of Illyria, a young girl, Viola, has been shipwrecked. Convinced that her twin brother Sebastian has drowned , Viola decides to disguise herself as a boy, Cesario, and serve at Duke Orsino’s court. Soon becoming a favourite of the Duke, Cesario is employed as an intermediary to woo Olivia on his behalf.  Cesario promises to try, although Viola has already fallen in love with Orsino herself. The plan goes awry when Olivia finds herself more enamoured with the messenger than the message…

In a subplot Maria, Olivia’s lady in waiting, together with the disreputable Sir Toby Belch, hatch a cunning plot to shame Malvolio, Olivia’s steward, who has amorous designs on his mistress, by faking a letter from her stating that if he wants to woo her he would wear yellow stockings and adopt a permanent smile, both of which she abhors. Malvolio falls for their ruse and loses his dignity in the process. But all comes right in the end.

In his strongly evocative production set in a Moorish Illyrie, resembling a mixture f Morocco, Spain and Cyprus, director Gregory Doran manages to bring out Shakespeare’s exploration of the follies and deceits of individuals and nature of identity, while combining elements of joy and sadness in a comedy of many dimensions. We are also reminded of the darkness that lies just below the surface.

One of the pleasures of this production is how clearly the cast enunciate their roles, so that we can fully digest Shakespeare’s rich, contemplative prose. In a hard working ensembles I was impressed with Nancy Carroll’s delightful Viola (convincing as a boy with short hair), Sam Alexander as a youthful Sebastian, Jo Stone-Fewings as the lovestruck Orsino, and the tartan-trousered James Fleet as Sir Andrew Arguecheek, but less struck with Richard Wilson’s Malvolio. He captured the dignity but not the pathos that Derek Jacobi brought to the part a year ago.

Nevertheless this is an arresting and enjoyable production that went down a treat with the packed audience.

By Laurence Green

Where: Duke of York’s Theatre, London, WC2

When: plays until 27 February

Box Office: 01789 412660

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