A finely nuanced “Twelfth Night” from the Royal Shakespeare Company

I should declare an interest:  “Twelfth Night” is one of my favourite Shakespeare plays – mainly because it is the play I know best, having studied it for my GCE O-level (what would now be GCSE) in English Literature (I got a Grade 2, since you ask)  at the same time as my English teacher directed it as the school play. As a result, I approach every production I see with a very critical eye. And I am pleased to say that the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production, currently at the Duke of York’s Theatre in London, very much met with my approval (I am sure this will be an enormous relief for the RSC).

The production gave a proper weight to the different characters and the quality of the acting meant that even the more minor parts had a vitality and wholeness that is often missing.  Thus, Fabian, played by Tony Jayawardena, seemed to have a real role in the action with his own separate motivations, rather than being a makeweight character created when Shakespeare realised that he couldn’t have Feste appearing so frequently at both Orsino’s Court and in Olivia’s household without having him absent some of the time (thereby requiring an additional character for a number of the scenes).  And Feste, played by Miltos Yerolemou (adding an additional frisson when Sebastian calls him a “foolish Greek”), himself was excellent, capturing the viciousness implicit in some of the clowning and the fool’s own insecurity.  Pamela Nomvete’s Maria was also fine with a clear hint at the end that she ultimately rejects Sir Toby (Richard McCabe).

The main set-piece scenes were well handled.  In particular, the second embassy scene where Olivia’s desire for Viola/Cesario (Nancy Carroll) was marvellously conjured up by Alexandra Gilbreath and the letter scene where Richard Wilson’s timing as Malvolio and the reactions from the box tree were impeccable.  (I was relieved there was no “I don’t believe it” moment to placate the many Richard Wilson groupies of a certain age in the audience, although had there been it would have no doubt completely baffled the equal number of Americans).


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