Wow, what a week. I can’t quite believe how much I packed into it – two Shakespeare plays in the West End, the first teaching block of my course in Stratford and a quick break in Wiltshire with my DH. And to think I believed I’d have the time to write. Anyway, here to kick off, a review of "Twelfth Night" , in which Derek Jacobi stole the show as Malvolio
Donmar Warehouse at the Wyndham’s Theatre, London
11 February 2009
Twelfth Night does not come across as a “problem play” stuffed with the kind of contentious issues that directors like to get their teeth into. I doubt whether we’re meant to take any particular message from it away with us, though it displays a subtlety of characterisation that sets it apart from the early comedies. It’s conceived primarily as entertainment, and this production reflects that. Well, mostly.
Shakespeare clearly relished writing the iconic humorous characters – Sir Andrew Aguecheek, Sir Toby Belch, Feste the Clown and Maria the serving woman. All these are brilliantly done, delivering their lines with spot-on comic timing, and any one of them deserves credit but they are, nevertheless, eclipsed by Derek Jacobi’s wonderful Malvolio. This is a star turn to savour – the great man takes us on a genuine emotional journey as we laugh at him, then begin to squirm in our seats at his distress and bewilderment as the practical joke spirals out of control. The stiff Puritan killjoy is given a touching emotional life. Maria is a resourceful and knowing axis of the subplot, her sharp eyes and tongue missing nothing. Sir Toby and Sir Andrew remain likeable whilst clearly being the houseguests from hell, though I’d draw the line at seeing their moral universe as an attractive alternative to the main one.
And what of the women? Viola (Victoria Hamilton) is sparky yet vulnerable, adrift but resourceful in a bewildering world. We never forget her grief, either for her lost brother or for her unrequited love; whilst Orsino wallows melodramatically in a passion shaped as much by thwarted male pride as genuine feeling, Viola puts a brave face on things and faces all her challenges head-on. It’s impossible not to like her.
Olivia (Indira Varma) has elegance and presence, but is less successful. Her transformation from grieving recluse to lovesick teenager is too sudden to be convincing, though the visual cues (from Widow of Windsor to Wallis Simpson on the Riviera) are so easy on the eye that it’s tempting just to sit back and enjoy the show. Any depth to her character remains unexplored.
Least convincing are the noblemen, perhaps because they are somewhat underwritten, in Sebastian’s case at least. He comes over as a shallow, spoilt brat incapable of proactive behaviour, dependant on his hapless lover Antonio for his very survival. So unequal is the emotional balance of this relationship that it has been seized on by commentators claiming a queer agenda as a classic example of the marginalization of a gay man in a straight world. Personally I see it as less iconic than that – it’s simply a sad story of a decent bloke falling for a worthless one, and painful to watch, introducing a discordant note into the finale’s resolution.
Here I felt the production faltered a little, as if waking up belatedly to the need to have a message. The one it comes up with is nothing remarkable, simply that most of us (particularly Orsino) have bisexual tendencies when pushed, and that romantic infatuation makes us behave stupidly and badly. Nobody demonstrates this more clearly than Mark Bonnar’s utterly unpleasant Orsino, who even pulls a knife on Caesario/Viola when (s)he appears to frustrate his obsession with Olivia. After this, it’s impossible to believe that their subsequent marriage would be a happy one unless his wife regularly indulged him in his cross-dressing kink. Even then, he’d consider himself perfectly entitled to pursue Sebastian, but he’d be very unlikely to allow a similar latitude to Viola should she choose to act on her feelings towards Olivia once legally “Orsino’s mistress and his fancy’s queen”.
To summarise, it’s worth going just to see Jacobi, but that does an injustice to an accessible and enjoyable production, ideal if you like your Shakespeare straightforward and entertaining, or you’re introducing someone else to the Bard. And Zubin Varma is an attractive Feste; his songs are an additional delight.