Former RSC artistic director Terry Hands's first Shakespeare outing since taking the helm of Theatr Clwyd (as it then was) is in so many respects a "very nearly" production. Even the cast of his Twelfth Night seem to be very nearly other people. Kirsten Parker's vivacious, high-octane Viola/Cesario is more than a little Kate Beckinsalesque; Jon Atkins – a hunched, diffident Feste with a touch of the Igors about him – is a Simon Russell Beale manqué (who can nearly play his lute-like guitar), and Johnson Willis might almost be playing Tim McInnerny playing Sir Andrew Aguecheek.
They play on a set which likewise nearly works: Hands and designer Timothy O'Brien use the single location of a bleak wood – snow-covered for the first half (we are under no illusions about this team's interpretation of the literalness of the play's title), in sparse spring leaf after the interval; it dispenses with the need to indicate whether a given scene takes place on Orsino's estate or Olivia's, but also dissipates the sense of household, leaving characters in a domestic as well as a geographical no-man's-land.
Some moments are lovely: Willis's Aguecheek is so deliciously wet that we see him practising the buzzwords "odours, pregnant and vouchsafed" before being peremptorily elbowed aside by Olivia, and likewise taking literally Sir Toby's advice to swear "Horrible!" at Cesario. Rachel Pickup's Olivia, confronted for the first time with Cesario, turns from mourner to coquette in an instant – truly, "even so quickly may one catch the plague". When, mistaking Sebastian for his disguised sister, Olivia pulls him offstage to be married to her, Andres Williams shares a grinning shrug with the audience. Most playfully, Sir Toby's faction conclude their first set-to with Malvolio by pelting him with snowballs.
And yet the "nearliness" pervades. Hands opts now and again to leave actors onstage and in the background rather than taking them off and bringing them on again, but this leads to strangenesses like Feste having to hide behind a tree before approaching Orsino, or Cesario and Olivia having an apparently perfectly amiable chat for almost two entire scenes before romantic awkwardness rears its head again. Malvolio's yellow stockings – or, to be precise, tights – are even more shocking amid the wintry colours and frayed edges of other costumes, but, deprived of a sense of place in which he can properly be a petty tyrant, Christian Patterson (shaven-headed and moustachioed – nearly rugby international Gareth Chilcott) is reduced to a kind of strutting, clockwork pomposity. A muted, downbeat Twelfth Night, then – best personified in Richard Moore's Sir Toby – but as temperate in its potency as in its mood.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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