Courtyard Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon

Opened 21 October, 2009


Squaring the circle of Twelfth Night is no easy task. Modern audiences are aware that, like a number of Shakespeare's other plays, its resolution leaves a number of loose ends that suggest no little unpleasantness in a notional Act VI; yet almost all attempts to acknowledge this in the play's staging create more awkwardness than they solve, with a palpable crashing of dramatic gears.
Gregory Doran's strategy in his latest RSC version is personified in two pieces of casting. As the self-regarding steward Malvolio, Richard Wilson (in, amazingly, his Shakespearean début) brings a touch of Victor Meldrew to the role. This is not a glib remark: the thing about One Foot In The Grave was that it consisted not just of comic misfortunes befalling the definitive grumpy old man, but that these were peppered with passages of disconcerting poignancy. So too here, after the classic scenes of comedy in which Malvolio finds a forged love letter and consequently presents himself before his mistress Olivia in yellow stockings and grinning like a gargoyle on Ecstasy, there is genuine unease when we see him confined in a dark prison cage with no idea why, being mercilessly teased by the fool Feste.
Feste is Doran's other major focus. He has cast Miltos Yerolemou, one of our finest clowning actors, but in order that he might play against this type. Yerolemou knows all the tricks, but here he deliberately makes them seem hollow, his Feste being bitterly aware of how contingent his position is on goodwill and patronage. It doesn't even matter that much that, in one of Shakespeare's most musical roles, here is an actor who sometimes just lets fly at a note and hopes for the best.
As the lovesick Count Orsino, Jo Stone-Fewings gives himself over to romantic fervour all the more amusing in someone so stocky; as his unrequited innamorata Olivia, Alexandra Gilbreath is characteristically lively and self-aware when she finds herself falling instead for young Cesario, who is actually Viola in disguise (Nancy Carroll in a strong performance but not a hugely individual one). James Fleet, in greying Cavalier hair and tartan trews, is a natural as the gormless Sir Andrew Aguecheek, and Richard McCabe intelligently interlaces his performance as Sir Toby Belch between the light and dark, as well as bearing a distinct likeness to the appropriately named The Big Figure, drummer with R&B band Dr Feelgood.
Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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