TWELFTH NIGHT / CYMBELINE
Ludlow Castle, Shropshire
Opened 26 June, 2004
** / ***

I have this naive hope that, if I live a long and virtuous life, I may one day before I die see a production of one of Shakespeare's "festive" comedies that is interestingly and competently staged without using the play's loose ends to fabricate a sombre minor-key ending. They're comedies, for God's sake! Michael Bogdanov's Twelfth Night, one of two productions staged in the inner bailey of Ludlow Castle for this year's festival, goes to extremes to confect its dying fall. When the arrogant steward Malvolio learns how he has been tricked, he does not yell his final line about revenge at the appointed place; he exits, the other characters' denouement is played out, then he returns with a couple of storm-troopers to tear down the seasonal decorations... then he delivers his line.

To give him credit, actor Paul Greenwood may understandably have been a little out of sorts by that point in the afternoon performance I saw. There can be few more thankless gigs for a performer than soldiering on in an outdoor production amid rain and wind, in front of an audience whose receptivity has likewise been dampened and buffeted. If, like Greenwood, you have to play a long scene hooded, leashed with rope (ah, those Iraq allusions get everywhere!) and half-naked, superhuman resilience is required.

The production in general is played straight and largely without distinction. Bogdanov gets the requisite laughs (bedraggled audience permitting) out of the comic business, but seems to care less about the verbal side of the jollity; John Labanowski and Frank Vickery as Sir Toby Belch and Sir Andrew Aguecheek spend their entire bantering first scene with nary a chuckle raised. Heledd Baskerville's Viola seems oddly desultory when disguised as a boy and wooing the lady Olivia, and the verse-speaking overall has a thumping quality to it.

Labanowski returned the same evening - before a rather drier audience (until the final hour) in the title role of the late romance Cymbeline. One of the least frequently staged of Shakespeare's plays, it's almost a compendium of motifs from the rest of his work. There's the realm threatened by flawed kingship (most of the histories and tragedies), the scheming stepmother-queen (cf. Titus Andronicus, Pericles), the praeternaturally virtuous daughter whose radiance saves her from murder (Pericles again, The Winter's Tale) and who disguises herself as a boy (well, take your pick), the challenge over fidelity/obedience/virtue (Love's Labour's Lost, The Taming Of The Shrew, All's Well That Ends Well), the stoical exile from court (As You Like It), and so on. There's also, here, a climactic battle strongly suggestive of Gulf War II (although elsewhere Malcolm Ranson's fight direction seems more sluggish than in the comic set-tos during Twelfth Night). Moreover, the play has a genuinely awkward ending, with several characters given lines that repudiate the option of living happily ever after; this is where Nia Roberts finally comes into her own as the hitherto saintly Imogen. Such a diminuendo ought to be enough for any director, without the need to confect a similar ending in an unambiguous comedy as well.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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