Note: This review is of a Preview performance on Saturday 15th January 2011. The Press Night will take place on Tuesday 18th January 2011.
Twelfth Night is one of my favourite plays. Unfortunately it is also a play where I have a very distinct benchmark, and one is which is probably rather unfair. That is, my benchmark is the BBC film (1996) which includes among its roster of stars Imelda Staunton as Maria, Ben Kingsley as Feste, Helena Bonham Carter as Olivia, and Imogen Stubbs as Viola. This production does a slightly better job of the play than the recent Donmar West End production which I didn't rate at all, but it is not, by any stretch of the imagination, a triumph.
Fundamentally, there is no sense of a director with a driving vision of the piece. Now I agree that driving visions of pieces can be over-rated (and modern opera productions are littered with the catastrophes created by such visions). However the lack of such a vision can be equally serious – one feels here somewhat as if Hall has nothing really compelling to say to us about this play. This is the more exposed because of the decision to print an essay by Hall about the play dating from 1960 which raises a number of interesting questions about the piece most of which are nowhere to be seen under consideration in this staging. Instead, the main distinguishing feature is a stylistic one, which is that Peter Hall has got a bad dose of HIP (otherwise known as Historical Informed Performance). In this case the HIP approach Hall calls upon is what one might call the Globe Theatre effect and, in particular, a fundamental, and frankly rather unsuccesful, attempt to turn the Cottesloe audience into groundlings. Two particular failures may be listed here: the effect of the approach on Rebecca Hall's (Viola) delivery of her brief sililoquys, and the attempt to get a bit of audience participation going at the end of the piece. Both these points we shall return to. There are also some suprising lapses in the management of the ensemble on stage. Rebecca Hall has to do an unconvincing half circle of the stage to avoid spotting Sebastian at the beginning of the recognition scene, while Simon Callow (Sir Toby) and his acolytes speak ridiculously loudly and are so close to Malvolio in the letter scene that his inability to notice them is dangerously near to being unconvincing.
The lack of drive in the direction is not compensated for either by the set (very minimal) or the costume (Elizabethan, or at least Elizabethan as imagined by Shakespeare in Love). Neither of these are offensive, and the latter occasionally brings out additional meaning from the text (particularly the idea of Feste as a failed clergyman and Malvolio's Puritan tendencies), but neither ultimately does much to add emotional weight to the experience. Discussing it with my brother this afternoon he suggested the adjective bland and that seemed to me pretty much spot on [Editor's note - not your editor but our other, non-contributing as far as this site is concerned, brother].
The cast are equally mixed. Unquestionably the stand out performance by a country mile comes from Simon Paisley Day as Malvolio. I could not understand the raves which greeted Derek Jacobi's performance in the Donmar Production, Day is miles and miles superior. He alone really seemed to me to grasp the emotional truth of this play – that each of these characters is walking a very fine line between the comic and the tragic. In Malvolio's case his delusion that Olivia may be in love with him and his fantasy of being raised to greatness (both established before he reads the fatal forged letter) are ridiculous – but he believes in them and that belief turns him into a figure of tragedy. Day is also the most consistently effective in delivering the text.
David Ryall's Feste and Charles Edwards's Sir Andrew Aguecheek were also solid performances. Edwards again had an inkling of the character's tragic dim awareness of the fact that he is being almost permanently mocked by those around him, Ryall delivered 'O Mistress Mine' mesmerically, and made a fine last scene of 'The Rain it Raineth Every Day' which was only marred by Hall's ridiculous idea that it would be good to end with a community sing song (I don't give a hang whether this is HIP or not; it simply doesn't work). The rest of the company are generally fine, but nobody especially stands out, certainly not next to Day's performance.
This is a most serious problem in the case of Rebecca Hall's Viola. I find reading her bio that I have recently seen Rebecca Hall on stage in The Bridge Project's productions of Winter's Tale and The Cherry Orchard and my recollection is that she was a good Hermione. But her Viola suffers from a fundamental flaw: she does not convince as a boy. There is a flippancy about her in some of the most poignant little asides and an over-knowingness in her glances to the audience which undermined the heart of the character. She is also not helped by costuming – an unsatisfactory red outfit – although it at least has the merit of being less ludicrous than the oriental garb and silly wig inflicted on the Donmar's Viola.
The fundamental weakness of her characterisation is indicated by the extent to which the recognition scene falls flat here. For the truth of this play to my mind is that, while there are comedic aspects to it, fundamentally it is a rather melancholy, sad piece. Consequently, if you overdo the comedy you can seriously undermine the emotional punch. If you couple this with a failure to put over the central conceit of Viola disguised as a boy then the whole thing is in danger of falling rather flat, as the end does here. In essence you must believe that Olivia and Antonio can mistake Viola for a man. To bring that off you either have to make them more frantic and blinded by love than is done here, or you have to protray Viola and Sebastian in such a way that the confusion is believable. It was not clear to me which of these options Hall had chosen, but the outcome was unsuccessful. The recognition scene left me unmoved.
It is always refreshing to see a play in a small space where you can see the faces of the actors, and there are some lovely visual touches – perhaps most of all Feste's isolated little rendition of 'The Rain it Raineth Every Day'. But overall this is a production struck by the curse of serviceability. It doesn't mortally offend, but it isn't particularly inspired either. If you have been bemoaning your inability to secure tickets for the comparatively short run and/or considering queueing for returns I would suggest that beyond the fine performance by Day, you can happily wait for the next attempt on this often revived play.