William Shakespeare wrote Twelfth Night in a frankly ridiculous two-year burst of industrious inspiration between 1598 and 1600, in which he also produced Much Ado About Nothing, Henry V, Julius Caesar, As You Like It and Hamlet. This was a playwright operating at the mid-career peak of powers, even before the later work of his mature tragedies, problem plays and romances. Twelfth Night, in this reviewer’s opinion, represents his finest example of the synthesis of a riotous, cross-dressing, coincidence-laden farce with the pitch black comedy of abuse, heartache and redemption.
What a pity, therefore, that Christopher Luscombe’s Victorian production of the play strips it of nearly all the things which make it such a hilarious, thrilling and thought-provoking play. This disappointment is made even greater by the fact that when Luscombe’s production occasionally does something interesting (such as Duke Orsino passionately kissing Viola while she is still disguised as the boy Cesario) it fails to follow through on these promising points of transgression.
“It fails to follow through on these promising points of transgression.”
For instance, in the play’s final scene, the twins Viola and Sebastian are reunited. An amazed Antonio asks Sebastian ‘how have you made division of yourself’, given the twins’ identical dress, and Orsino, again proving his latent homosexuality, declares his love for the wrong twin, walking towards Antonio instead of Viola. The audience were audibly delighted at this deliberate undermining of traditional performance conventions and the continued attempt to disrupt the image of Orsino who, in many ways, represents our confusion at this apparent ‘division’.
However, instead of following through on the decision to have Orsino marry the actual male twin instead of the female twin dressed as a man, the Duke realised his mistake and passed it off as a momentary lapse of judgement. The production’s final image even gave it a second shot at subversion, with the lights fading on the four lovers caught into a square of on-going bafflement and raising their fingers to point at each other, with the audience left in potential confusion of who might marry who. This was again undermined by a tiresome sequence of extended bows, which featured the diabolical shoehorning of Feste’s dark, final song ‘The rain it raineth every day’ into a Gilbert & Sullivan-influenced number.
Clearly, the Victorian setting did not allow the production to fully embrace these notions of liminal gender boundaries in the way a modern context might, but it was admirable of Luscombe to address these ideas. This made the rest of the pantomime-esque nostalgia train wreck all the more aggravating. Strangely, Luscombe has form in the area of setting Shakespeare’s plays in a bygone era and applying the language and performance style to fit that period. He paired Love’s Labour’s Lost and Much Ado About Nothing (as Love’s Labour’s Won) for the RSC’s 2014 Christmas shows, placing them either side of the First World War. Three years later, Twelfth Night is as terrible as they were magical.
Occasionally, the best way to watch Twelfth Night was to pretend it was a parody of itself and those Victorian performance styles and speech patterns. This was best exemplified by the earnestness of Kara Tointon’s Oliva, whose performance was so mannered and heightened that I felt sure she was aware of the production’s ludicrously melodramatic tone. But I might be wrong. One of the best ‘deliberate’ performances was by Adrian Edmondson, who brought all the excellent comic timing of his many appearances on British television and filtered this into a particularly fragile and sympathetic Malvolio.
“It frequently made me ask myself ‘who is this production for?”
However, the production’s true start turn came from the supporting cast. In her RSC debut season, like many of the cast, Sarah Twomey was magnificent as the male-written Fabian (here played as Fabia), displaying an acute sense of the ridiculous spiral of events and delivering an exuberant physical performance, which had me wonder why she wasn’t cast as one of the leads. This was heightened by the poor quality of many of those central performances: Dinita Gohil’s Viola and Nicholas Bishop’s Orsino being a particularly insipid pairing who shouted their every line without any tonal variation.
It is one thing to obey the performance conventions of the play’s Victorian setting, but when this slows the delivery of lines to point of becoming distracting and soporific, I wondered if the production had gone too far in its recreation of that past world. It frequently made me ask myself ‘who is this production for?’ Luscombe’s Much Ado About Nothing proved with abundance that nostalgia can be a positive form of escapism in Shakespearean performance and, clearly, not every show at the RSC should be a politically charged recontextualisation or deliberate attempt at modernisation. However, Twelfth Night was dramatically inert and I can only think that this is an attempt at a safe, popular bet after the relative experimentation of Titus Andronicus and Coriolanus in the summer’s Rome Season. The great expectations I had for this overtly Dickensian production (which shares most of its company with A Christmas Carol) were, sadly, not met. It was most certainly not the best of times but the worst of times.
Twelfth Night is running in the Royal Shakespeare Theatre until 24th February and will be screened live to cinemas on Valentines Day.
Image: Manuel Harlan (c) RSC