I normally get to see the RSC’s productions at the beginning of their run and I’m then able to prepare the review early. This one is unusual as, because of my personal workload, I didn’t get to see Twelfth Night until three nights before it finished. I decided to prepare a review anyway – even though it’s likely to influence exactly nothing.
The 2007 RSC production of Twelfth Night rather went out of its way to draw attention to itself. The character of Viola, a woman who dresses herself as a man, was played by a man. The three older male characters of Sir Toby Belch, Sir Andrew Aguecheek, and Fabian, were played by older women. The character of Malvolio was played by the American actor, John Lithgow, who is better known for the sit-com “Third Rock From the Sun” than for his serious theatre work.
On that occasion, Lithgow was the surprise triumph in a play that once you got past the unusual casting didn’t have all that much to offer. Malvolio saved the day.
The 2009 production, directed by Gregory Doran, goes for a much more conventional casting but also goes for a Malvolio that the public will be drawn to because of a sit-com. This time it is Richard Wilson, who has become somewhat typecast since his association with a certain catchphrase and the character of Victor Meldrew in the BBC’s “One Foot in the Grave”.
Wilson is certainly the most recognisable face in the cast but it is another actor associated with a BBC sit-com who provides the wittiest and brightest performance. James Fleet, known for his role in “The Vicar of Dibley” brings energy, verve and believable comedic stupidity to the character of Andrew Aguecheek. He has boundless momentum, wit and makes every word count. This is all the more notable given how lacklustre this character was in the aforementioned 2007 production.
In Richard McCabe who plays Toby Belch he has an amiable and likeable companion, even if the visual jokes are a little low.
But the play is not all high points and great performances. Alexandra Gilbreath as Olivia is a little stiff, and does not bring much to a female part that is supposed have most of the male characters in a sweat.
Miltos Yerolemou as Feste, the fool, is highly energetic and vibrant throughout the play but his spinning around the stage which is entertaining before the interval has a tendency to become a little repetitive the more the night goes on.
Wilson’s Malvolio is adequate but he has none of the charm and variety brought to the role by Lithgow in that earlier production. He is deadpan too often.
It seems that from the two productions you could have made an almost perfect performance! Sam Alexander, who brought good performances to “Love’s Labour’s Lost” and “Hamlet” last year, delivered up an effective Sebastian another role that in the previous run had little to offer other than cross-dressing.
An effective and compelling set design was provided by Robert Jones and this is an eminently watchable and bright production. Paul Englishby provides good arrangements to the music which complements the lyrics provided by Will Shakespeare’s script.
So, good in parts but a production that is good because it plays to the strengths of the play. Weak in places but an enjoyable night at the theatre because the good outweighs the under-developed.