As one half of a twin pairing myself, I’ve always been drawn to Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night; and it’s hard to imagine that Shakespeare, himself the father of twins, was not aware of the remarkable bond that twins share.
For me, at least, the reunion of Viola and Sebastian has the potential to be one of the most tender moments in Shakespeare’s oeuvre. This poignancy is not lost in the RSC’s latest production of Twelfth Night.
This charming production, cleverly set in the late Victorian period, channels the influence of the notorious Oscar Wilde, and pays homage to the writer’s irreverent attitude towards Victorian upper-class hypocrisy. The allusions to Wilde are as subtle as a yellow book in the hands of the pianist, and as apparent as the characterisation of Orsino, whose ability to wallow in his unrequited love: ‘give me excess of it’, and his sensuous disposition as an artist, play upon the notion of ‘art for art’s sake’. Here, perhaps we could more aptly substitute ‘art’ for ‘love’.
Its setting allows us to consider Twelfth Night as we might The Importance of Being Earnest. It elevates the homoerotic tensions felt in the play and highlights the ridiculousness of the rigidity of the social codes of conduct. The lavish opulence of Orsino, in his bachelor’s apartment painting the portrait of a servant dressed in a tiny loincloth, makes the homoeroticism and the apparent fetishisation of the orient clear from the exposition. Perhaps this fetishisation helps to explain the sudden, lustful desire for the twins, whose exotic dress and countenance becomes a fulcrum for the desire of Olivia, Orsino, and Antonio. This is an interesting consideration, and critique, of the Victorian relationship with South Asia and its colonised people.
What was so compelling about this production was its acceptance of its own darkness; Twelfth Night has the potential for ambivalence and ambiguity in performance, especially in the narrative of the revellers and Malvolio. The final moments of the play trouble our relationship with the careless revellers; and the madness of Malvolio (Adrian Edmondson) becomes deeply distressing in his final moments on stage. Edmondson’s portrayal of Malvolio, as puritan turned madman, is almost endearing, while John Hodgkinson, as Sir Toby Belch, walks a fine line between charming and sinister.
a sensuous platform for the equally sensual narrative
Michael Cochraine shines in his role as Sir Andrew Aguecheeck, inspiring sympathy and giving nuance to a character that can easily fall into caricature. Hodgkinson and Cochraine are the epitome of drunkenness, oscillating seamlessly between boisterous bacchanalia and drunken lethargy. The line: ‘I was adored once too’ is spoken in one of these moments of stillness, as Aguecheeck lies strewn across a stool, and this contemplative and plaintive line is almost heart-breaking.
The extravagant set design, with huge mechanical scene changes and fastidious attention to detail demand that I commend the work of the Designer Simon Higlett and the rest of the creative team for their efforts. Elements such as the tiny statue of Eros/Cupid in Orsino’s study and the marvellous recreation of a Victorian station were breath-taking, reinforcing central themes and creating a sensuous platform for the equally sensual narrative.
one of the most thoughtful [productions] I have come across, and is a triumph of Director Christopher Luscombe
This vibrant performance, supported by a strong musical score is highly aware of its own performativity and the importance of performativity in the narrative. Its use of music hall within the role of Feste highlights the bittersweet role of performers; Bruce Kahn (as Feste) is the perfect fool, tortured by his heightened awareness to his role as ‘performer’.
Dinita Gohil is an enthusiastic Viola, although this enthusiasm, at times, felt clumsy, and the relationship between Viola and Olivia, Kara Tointon, seemed to lack nuance, particularly in the first half of the play. However, Tointon came into her own in the second half, and served to disturb the accepted heterosexual pairings in the final moments of the play.
This bittersweet, Dionysiac, and compelling production of Twelfth Night is one of the most thoughtful I have come across, and is a triumph of Director Christopher Luscombe. If you are unable to attend a live performance I highly recommend seeing the cinematic broadcast of the play on Wednesday 14th February 2018 in the RSC’s ‘Live from Straford-Upon-Avon’. Find your nearest cinema here.
Twelfth Night is playing at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford-Upon-Avon until 24th February 2018, tickets and more information here
Image: Manuel Harlan (c) RSC