Novello Theatre, London WC2
Opened 13 December, 2005

Michael Boyd's production, which opens one of two RSC seasons in the West End this holiday period, looks like a surrealist painting of a Scottish variety hall. Music stands hang from the flies, and a huge painted pair of blue female eyes observe the goings-on from the backdrop. The monochrome costumes of Illyria are disrupted by the check-suited Feste and by twins Viola and Sebastian, dressed identically as if they had walked out of John Byrne's Tutti Frutti; all three wear varying forms of pierrot white-face. This is not a land under temporary festive misrule for the duration of the play, but rather a fundamentally fantastical realm.

Boyd seems to have trimmed one or two ideas since the show's Stratford opening last spring (which I did not see). What does not appear to have changed is the absence of feeling for the play's verse which Alastair Macaulay lamented in May. If anything, the two central instances of recasting may have exacerbated matters. Whether in Viola's own persona or disguised as the youth Cesario, Sally Tatum's only way of conveying emotion is to insert a sob into every fifth word or so. As Sir Toby Belch, Clive Wood has a consistently artificial delivery, as if all his drunkenness and cozening were a postmodern jouissance. It simply grates.

The production does have its strengths. Richard Cordery possesses gravitas as well as delight as Malvolio; his silly little martial-arts gestures when alone prefigure his later appearance in a grotesque yellow and black Kill Bill biker jumpsuit. Forbes Masson's Feste nurses a love for waiting-woman Maria (Meg Fraser) which she sometimes excruciatingly exploits; he also has a lightness of touch to make John Woolf's torch-jazz arrangements of the play's songs less wearing. John Mackay is a lanky marionette of a Sir Andrew, and Olivia can seldom have transformed so completely from flinty grief to ardent love as achieved here by Aislin McGuckin. It's welcome, too, to see the former Strand Theatre reopened after £4.5 million of refurbishment, and now renamed after Ivor Novello. But as for the production, the last RSC Twelfth Night, directed by Lindsay Posner in 2001, was no great Shakes, and Boyd does not even match that.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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