Thou shall not choose but go

When: 26th July 2012

Where: Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-Upon-Avon

What: Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare

When considering the RSC’s current production of “Twelfth Night”, it is helpful to separate out the plays two strands: the humorous and the romantic.

In the humorous strand, we have Malvolio, steward of the household, played here by Jonathan Slinger. We also have Sir Toby Belch (Olivia’s uncle) (Nicholas Day), Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Olivia’s unwanted suitor) (Bruce Mackinnon), Maria (Olivia’s gentlewoman) (Cecilia Noble) and Fabian (Olivia’s groundsman) (Felix Hayes)

In the romantic strand, we have Olivia herself (played by Kirsty Bushell), Orsino (another suitor) (Jonathan McGuinness), and the twins, Viola (Emily Taaffe) and Sebastian (Stephen Hagan).

Linking the two, we have Feste, the fool (played by Kevin McMonagle).

Separating them in this way is not entirely satisfactory – after all, much of the humour arises from the confusing of the twins when Viola dresses as Cesario – but I think it proves quite helpful when considering the strengths and weaknesses of this particular production.

The stage set for this play is essentially the same as the one used for “Comedy of Errors” which I reviewed earlier. Whilst the stage set definitely added to “….Errors” it does little for “Twelfth Night” aside from allowing the two characters who have escaped drowning to arrive from the water, dripping wet. The stage set is reused as the two mentioned plays and “The Tempest” are being presented as “Shakespeare’s Shipwreck Trilogy”. The link is tenuous and it goes without saying that William had no such trilogy in mind.

So the humour? The strengths are very much the portrayal of Sir Toby Belch, and to some extent this version of Aguecheek. Nicholas Day as Belch is formidable and never puts a foot wrong or fails to make a line count. Mackinnon’s Aguecheek is good but suffers slightly from the fact that Sir Andrew is obviously a close relative of Dromio from “The Comedy of Errors” and one begins to wonder whether Mr Mackinnon has more than one zany idiot up his sleeve and whether he duplicates this role wherever he is put.

The two laughter-makers are greatly supported by Cecilia Noble’s sincere yet conspiratorial Maria who is marvellous, warm and engaging if wonderfully duplicitous.

But what are we to make of Slinger’s Malvolio. Mr Slinger is obviously highly esteemed by the RSC. He has taken the lead role in Macbeth and others and I understand he is scheduled to lead in Hamlet next year. On the other hand, he was a strange and unappealing Pinch in “Comedy…..” and in another comedy role he has been given Malvolio. The RSC has recently had John Lithgow and Richard Wilson fill Malvolio’s cross-gartered stockings and so Jonathan Slinger has considerable acts to follow.

And Jonathan’s Malvolio, a cross between Chris Barrie’s Gordon Brittas and a parody of Kenneth Williams, doesn’t quite cut it. The idea of having Malvolio in yellow women’s stockings and garters to avoid reverting to Elizabethan dress in the middle of the play is cute but Mr Slinger doesn’t carry it off too well and there are moments when you begin to feel that you are watching a 1970s situation comedy rather than Shakespeare. This is not helped by the fact that physically Jonathan Slinger in wig and moustache resembles Brian Murphy’s George Roper from George and Mildred. It doesn’t work and sometimes it brings all that surrounds it down. It gives the audience some chuckles but they are obvious and are cheaply bought.

And so onto the romantic sections…… One part of the play that has been less successful in recent RSC productions of “Twelfth Night” has been the role of the twins but this time they seem to have solved it. Of course, you need to use your imagination slightly as the actors playing Viola and Sebastian are not identical but only identically dressed. This proves, however, much preferable to the production a few years ago (review on this site) where the two twins were played by male identical twins. The less said about that part of that particular production, in my view, the better.

So here we have a less successful Malvolio but a much, much better Viola and Sebastian. Viola, particularly, is delightful and has the youthful enthusiasm that the role requires and you can understand why Olivia might be mistakenly drawn to her boyish side whilst Orsino finally succumbs to her true nature.

Sadly, Kirsty Bushell as Olivia sometimes sounds like she is saying her lines rather than understanding her lines….. and the character she brings to Olivia is remarkably similar to that which she brings to her role of Adriana – which is no bad thing but variety, they say, is the spice of life.

Jonathan McGuiness is a very satisfactory Orsino. The denouement of the play is unsatisfactory as Orsino hurriedly falls in love with Viola but this is not Mr McGuinness’ flaw but Mr Shakespeare’s and I don’t think he will be re-writing the conclusion any time soon.

Other flaws? A few.

Again, we have a comedy Christian minister, as in the recent production of “The Comedy of Errors”, attempting to force electric shock therapy on a person deemed to be insane. History teaches us that this has been a secular and medical practice but you will search in vain for either real or fake Christians using it ever. Sorry guys, it’s not working and it’s not funny

The programme, which we read in the interval, has a three page article on multi-culturalism which never mentions Shakespeare or “Twelfth Night” which is no doubt worthy but quite out of step with the play and this production. The stem ginger ice cream is a better way of spending your pocket money.

Finally, we turn to Mr McMonagle’s. Great songs, great delivery of songs, not a great fool, not great delivery of lines. Like they say, good in parts – which is a good way of summing up this production!

So a mixed bag. We expect more of “Twelfth Night” than say “Comedy of Errors” simply because it is a better and richer play. And indeed, I would recommend this “Twelfth Night” over the current run of “….Errors” but that is not to say it is without its shortcomings, some of which cut deeper than Malvolio’s rubber stockings.

But all-in-all, a good night out at the theatre. A narrow home win for the RSC.

1 thought on “Thou shall not choose but go

  1. Pingback: Shakespeare Reviews | twilightdawning

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