David Farr, currently joint artistic director of Bristol Old Vic, is to succeed Neil Bartlett at the helm of the Lyric Hammersmith next year. Twelfth Night is not his farewell production at Bristol, but it's the first to be scrutinised in the light of his recently announced appointment. Farr and Simon Reade (who will continue as sole artistic director) have brought about a sea-change in the Bristol venue's fortunes and reputation, by dint not of caution but of audacity.
There's a happy medium to be struck in such matters. For instance, before going into the auditorium the other night, I overheard a woman remark, "Oh, it's in modern dress!" as if this were an outrageous innovation. That said, modern-dress productions of this play always funk the problem of how the tricked steward Malvolio is to appear at all plausibly "in yellow stockings, and... cross-garter'd". This needs to be a request which he would believe to have been made by his mistress Olivia. It's nicely ridiculous for actor Mark Lockyer to come on trouserless, his shirt open to the navel and tucked into the top of a pair of yellow tights, but it's about as credible as Dick Cheney in a pink tutu. Lockyer almost carries it off, though, as his quiet superciliousness explodes into extravagant nipple-stroking.
Similarly, Farr seems to be making a point about colour-blind casting and the suspension of disbelief by deploying a black Viola, Nikki Amuka Bird, and a white Sebastian, Joseph Kennedy. We now know that male/female identical twins are an impossibility, so why not go this one step further? Well, perhaps because it still gets a slight titter of incredulity when the two are brought together in the final scene and others declare themselves unable to tell them apart. Bird makes an efficient Viola, especially when Orsino, to whom the disguised Viola becomes a "manservant", is played by Charles Edwards not as rampantly impassioned but as a lovestruck scholar and a bit of a dork. As Olivia, Rakie Ayola is terrific in the extremities of her love for Viola/Cesario: just the occasional gesture or vocal inflection shows her periodically losing control.
Angela Davies' crumbling great-house set, its lintel propped up by scaffolding supports, is on the modish side, but Farr treads the line more skilfully than most in bringing out the darker forebodings of the play without short-changing the comedy, a deal which is personified in Jimmy Yuill's delicately balanced yet still rumbustious performance as Sir Toby Belch.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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