Theatre review: Twelfth Night at the RSC

Twelfth Night - RSC, Opus Arte DVD

Royal Shakespeare Company
Written by William Shakespeare
Director: Christopher Luscombe
Cast: Dinita Gohil, Nicholas Bishop, Kara Tointon, Adrian Edmondson, Michael Cochrane, John Hodgkinson, Beruce Khan, Vivien Parry, Sarah Twomey, Giles Taylor, Esh Alladi
Opus Arte, DVD

Twelfth Night has successfully been set in a contemporary setting on the Cornish coast in Trevor Nunn's 1996 film version, but other than keeping it in Shakespeare's own time, it's hard to imagine any other period that would make good use of the play's particular blend of cross-dressing, identity confusion comedy. The idea of setting it in late Victorian times seems somewhat arbitrary then, but Christopher Luscombe knows what he is doing. Apply some Wildean wit, satire and scandal, create sets based on Chelsea manors with Pre-Raphaelite touches and throw in some music-hall romps, and Twelfth Night finds itself very much at home.

Luscombe has previous form at the RSC finding appropriate settings that are more familiar and carry the resonance underlying issues that contribute to define character more deeply behind the surface comic antics. His Loves Labour's Lost, Love's Labour's Won (Much Ado About Nothing) pairing on either side of the Great War, contrasted a youthful British pre-war lightness and optimism with a post-war healing and rebuilding. That pairing also made superb use of musical interludes for additional period colour and character, and that's also evident in his new production of Twelfth Night.

There's a persuasive argument for setting the play in Victorian London, and it soon becomes apparent how strong the connection is. Wilde's comedies of wit, manners and society like The Importance of Being Earnest, with its play on identity and hiding less socially acceptable behaviour in a secret identity are obviously indebted to Shakespeare, although it has never struck me as such until now. The comic ambiguity played with in Twelfth Night around decadent nobles falling for handsome boys, and ladies being attracted to boys who are really girls in disguise works perfectly as a similar satirise of Victorian hypocrisy and repression, and it might even have something to say about changing contemporary attitudes towards gender fluidity.

In this RSC production then, Count Orsino the Duke of Illyria is a kind of Pre-Raphaelite painter, the sets based on Lord Leighton's Holland Park mansion with its Eastern influenced architecture and similarly attired servants. There's an air of Wildean decadence in the air as he paints a semi-naked male figure in a classical pose, and feels curiously attracted to the delicate features of his servant Cesario, not realising that Cesario is in fact a young woman called Viola, shipwrecked in Illyria some eight months ago, but he's prepared to indulge those illicit and confusing feelings anyway.

There is still the outstanding matter of Orsino's continued efforts to win the affections of the Countess Olivia, if for nothing more than the sake of propriety and social demands. Olivia however has been in mourning for her dead brother for seven years now and shows no signs of wanting to return to society. Aware of Cesario's charm and way with words, Orsino sends his 'boy' on a mission of love, and his charm works perhaps too well, as Olivia becomes intrigued with this handsome boy, not realising that she may be falling in love with a woman in disguise.

If you add in the fact that Viola has a twin brother called Sebastian who she believes drowned in the same shipwreck, and that Sebastian has been taken in by Antonio, a 'devoted friend' who is reluctant to be parted from him, there is much more sexual ambiguity and identity confusion to come. That's without getting into the whole sub-plot hatched beneath the stairs by the rakish Sir Toby Belch and Sir Andrew Aguecheck to humiliate the pompous 'puritan' manservant Malvolio by having him dress up as a Dandy and behave in a most inappropriate manner. Even the Fool Feste's epigrams ("Many a good hanging prevents a bad marriage", "Better a witty fool than a foolish wit") have a scandalous Wildean character to them.

The period setting works wonderfully and the musical pieces with their Music Hall flavour enliven the piece considerably, but how the comedy flies depends much on the casting and performances. There's a good balance struck between the above stairs and below stairs, with the ambiguous in-between rogues, that contributes to that sense of duality, and the performances likewise straddle that division between the more sophisticated comedy of wit and manners and the comedy of exaggerated slapstick. Adrian Edmonson has the plum role of Malvolio and makes a proper song and dance of it, although he has a run for his money in the comedy stakes from Michael Cochrane's Sir Andrew Aguecheek. Vivien Parry's Maria and Sarah Twomey's Fabia are also highly entertaining, playing with gusto and Dinila Gohil is a sweet and charming Cesario/Viola.

Usually released on Blu-ray and DVD, this is the first of the RSC Live releases to be made available only on an all-region DVD with an NTSC transfer and evidently there is a corresponding drop in quality from the High Definition version. The image is rather soft, the sound not quite as crisp and clear, but barring a little intermittent interference on Kara Tointon's body mic the dialogue is nonetheless perfectly audible. Extras include a 3-minute interview with Dinila Gohil, a Cast Gallery and a full-length commentary from the director Chris Luscombe and set and costume designer Simon Higlett. The booklet takes a closer look at the Victorian period referenced in this production.

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