Twelfth Night: 19 December 2009 – London

Royal Shakespeare Company

Reviews of Gregory Doran’s new Twelfth Night for the Royal Shakespeare Company are all likely to focus on the casting of Richard Wilson as Malvolio, who is iconic in the UK for his decade as Victor Meldrew, the grumpiest of all grumpy old men, in Dan Renwick’s superlative sitcom One Foot in the Grave. It will be characterized, variously, as obvious, inspired, and an (obvious or inspired) attempt to use Wilson’s television celebrity to attract a broader audience than the RSC’s usual crowd of company devotees, drama students, middle class parents inflicting a cultural broadening experience upon their children, and tourists in search of a shot of culture. It is, in fact, all three.

There has been discussion, and doubt, of the advisability of casting the 73-year-old Wilson, but any reservations about a pensionable Malvolio are dismissed from the first moments of his first scene, and as the play progresses, the brilliance of the creation becomes hilariously apparent. Before he is duped by Maria’s letter, the Puritanism and pomposity of Wilson’s Malvolio is starkly enhanced by an old man’s assumed superiority to everyone younger; after the trick, the arrogance and absurdity of his conviction that Olivia (Alexandra Gilbreath) loves him is endlessly amplified by his age. Here is a Malvolio wrinkled enough that, when he contorts his lips into an unfamiliar smirk, his face shows more lines than the new map with the augmentation of the Indies’.

His performance peaks in the production’s sparkling version of Act III, Scene IV (in which Malvolio, believing his forced grin and yellow stockings make him irresistible to Olivia, is taken to be a madman). The spectacle of the septuagenarian Wilson capering in cross-gartered stockings, and coquettishly revealing an arched leg like Claude Colbert thumbing a ride in It Happened One Night, is the funniest moment in a production punctuated by belly laughs from the audience and rich in sublime silliness.

Uproarious as it is, though, Wilson’s performance never fully frees itself from memories of Meldrew. Offstage, Wilson delivers his final line “I’ll be revenged on the whole pack of you!” in a fashion that is unadulterated Meldrew, and could have been bellowed at some bothersome youths in just about any episode of One Foot In The Grave. Although this lessens the overall impact of his Malvolio — reminding us of Meldrew with the last words of a performance that, by that point, has (almost) managed to make us forget him — shouldn’t be too harshly criticized. Ultimately, it only underlines that, though there may be a little too much Victor Meldrew in this Malvolio, there was always more than a little Malvolio in Victor Meldrew.

Wilson is not the only actor here playing on his sitcom associations. James Fleet, almost as famous as Wilson for his 14 years as the adorable and half-witted Hugo Horton in another quintessential British sitcom, The Vicar of Dibley, appears here as Sir Andre Aguecheek, and plays his every line as if the character were an Elizabethan ancestor of Hugo H. While this produces some standout comic scenes, particularly the duel of cowards with Cesario and a brilliant box tree scene, it still feels like he has taken the easiest of easy options, and delivered only half a character.

The third performance that seems to be based on a performance from somewhere else is Simeon Moore’s, as Antonio the Sea Captain. Why Moore has been dressed like Johnny Depp’s Captain Jack Sparrow, and instructed to talk like him, is unfathomable. The obvious echoes of the Sparrow character, and in particular Depp’s eccentric diction, make Antonio appear more out of place amongst the other characters than he already does, and leaves no place to explore the most interesting aspect of him: his adoration of Sebastian (Sam Alexander).

The actors whose performances are free of echoes of pop culture characters seem, in contrast to those aforementioned, more honest and unrestrained. The best of them is Nancy Carroll. She crafts a Viola / Cesario that, crucially, manages to be both believably lovesick and believably lovable (qualities that are, in life, often mutually exclusive). Her interactions with Alexandra Gilbreath’s Olivia are dazzling, sexy and, most importantly, played with perfect comic timing. Miltos Yerolemou’s Feste deserves paragraphs of praise, particularly for his work in the expertly staged songs that, at times, give the production the gloriously entertaining dimension of feeling like a full-blown musical.

Since transferring to the charming, pre-fabricated Courtyard Theatre — with its workshop smell of sawdust and metal — so that massive-scale renovations can be undertaken on its main theatre, the RSC has implanted an odd series of sense memories in its frequent playgoers. Construction site scents now prompt memories of past productions as powerfully as reading through an old programme, and someone in the company has clearly noticed and decided to exploit the nasal potential of this play. Here, smells are used to evoke Twelfth Night’s Ottoman Empire setting almost as much as music and costume.

After the interval, an actor circles the stage and fans incense around the auditorium. While this is lushly evocative it does have practical drawbacks. As with the smoke effects that are also employed, this thick, wafting perfume initiates a Mexican wave of coughing and eye-rubbing that spreads backs through the audience. As the row in front stops spluttering, the row behind begins, and so the disruption of the scene onstage is extended.

Goran, and his production designer Robert Jones, should have had more confidence in their costume department, the stellar work of which makes the showy scent effects unnecessary. The contrast between Malvolio’s dour black robes and those garish yellow stockings is a masterstroke of simplicity, and the fine tailoring of Cesario and Sebastian’s equerry-ish outfits makes the characters believably interchangeable without the peculiar hats or headscarves that are sometimes employed. The costumes are faultless throughout.

The production overall is far from faultless but, vitally, its small disappointments are only apparent when analyzed in hindsight. Whilst we watch it, this is a vibrant, clever and powerfully entertaining production. Ultimately, even Shakespeare’s comedies are judged by just one standard: whether or not they are funny. And this Twelfth Night is hilarious.