Wyndham's Theatre, London WC2
Opened 10 December, 2008

The second of Michael Grandage’s Donmar in the West End productions is not as eye-opening as its predecessor Ivanov, more a superior example of a production doing what it says on the tin.
The major selling point is Derek Jacobi as the self-regarding steward Malvolio. The character’s usual frostiness is largely absent here; when Jacobi’s Malvolio inveighs against “the lighter people” at Olivia’s court, he shows outright spite. With his grey crew-cut, close-cropped beard and the mandatory poker-backed rectitude, Jacobi resembles a semi-retired Prussian colonel with just the tiniest amount of camp. During the central comic scene, on reading the forged love letter which exhorts him to smile, his tics and spasms as he tries to remember how to do so are the facial equivalent of a particularly virulent stammer from his 1970s TV portrayal of the Roman emperor Claudius.
The twins Sebastian and Viola (in her male disguise) buck the general mid-20th-century costuming by dressing like fin-de-siècle Spanish military students. Victoria Hamilton is as open and expressive as ever in the role of Viola, hampered scarcely at all by a wig that looks more like a perm than the thatch sported by Alex Waldmann as Sebastian. When the penny drops that Olivia (Indira Varma) has fallen in love with “Cesario”, Hamilton turns towards us and blinks wonderfully in bemusement like a button-eyed 1930s cartoon character. The comic roles are all strongly played: Samantha Spiro as Maria orchestrates matters, the compact Ron Cook shows that Sir Toby Belch does not need to be rotund and rollicking, and Guy Henry as Andrew Aguecheek gets laughs in the letter scene by uttering lines without popping up out of hiding.
The only palpably unorthodox note is the portrayal of the fool Feste almost as a kind of griot, playing guitar and even a djembe drum. Zubin Varla has the musical skills to handle the several songs in the play, although elsewhere there is rather too much of Julian Philips’ incidental score. Christopher Oram’s backdrop of louvered doors opens at the interval, converting the enclosed aristocratic courts to a sunny beach, and Neil Austin lights much of the romantic confusion of Act Four like a Jack Vettriano painting. The novelties are all comparatively minor, but sometimes a solid and unrevelatory reading is just fine to be going on with.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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