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A CurtainUp London London Review
Twelfth Night

By the very fangs of malice I swear, I am not that I play— Viola
Twelfth Night
Derek Jacobi as Malvolio
(Photo: Manuel Harlan)
>Derek Jacobi may enjoy star billing for his performance as Malvolio, but the Donmar West End's Twelfth Night is very much an ensemble piece. Possessing what is fast becoming Michael Grandage's signature style, this production combines clarity with energy in an uncluttered interpretation which allows the play to speak for itself. Strong performances and a quick fluidity of scenes add emotion and momentum to what is essentially a subtle bittersweet comedy concentrating more on yearning, unfulfilled desire, and ephemeral love and beauty rather than the raucous comedy of disguise and trickery.

Christopher Oram's expansive design clearly places the elusive Illyria on the coast, with a ship deck floor and tall louvre doors arrayed across the length of the set, rusted as if decayed by sea air. The tempestuous sea may be at the very heart of this setting, but post-storm, the set opens up to reveal a beach horizon, complete with lighting which mimics the Mediterranean sun.

Mark Bonnar is a violently passionate Orsino, wracked by the anguish of unrequited love and played with atypical intensity. Emerging suddenly in the midst of dramatically rumbling, rolling thunder, the first scene sets the tone for his agonized state. Viola (Victoria Hamilton) then appears, as if a product of this squally opening in a billowed-out, sea turquoise translucent dress like a mermaid. From timid physicality in her male guise to piping self-possession, Victoria Hamilton makes an endearing Viola. Alex Waldmann's well-matched Sebastian is given greater prominence and therefore parallelism within the love tangle. This is unusual for a part which is often presented only as a convenient coda to resolve the action. Indira Varma's Olivia has statuesque, angular beauty with a suitably proud demeanour only destabilized by her infatuation with Cesario.

Derek Jacobi makes a very traditional Malvolio: gravely supercilious and obnoxiously pretentious. Perhaps not a naturally comic actor, he exploits his offstage gravitas and much of the comedy derives from this, as Jacobi's (rather than Malvolio's) stature is compromised. His exquisite snootiness, however, renders his transition to sympathetic victim problematic when he descends into the nadir of his begrimed humiliation. There is little sense of the wrenching cruelty and the audience's guilty complicity, who'd had no compunction in laughing at him moments earlier. Guy Henry's Aguecheek, on the other hand, excellently melds his role's comedy to its pathos and, in a very restrained performance, allows his lanky physicality to do much of the fooling, as well as contributing to the sense of his isolation.

Michael Grandage's direction is so subtle, with touches that are so cleverly suited to or closely embedded in the action, that they are almost imperceptible. Although adding to the mesmeric whole, this is art which conceals it is art. For instance, during one of Feste's (Zubin Varla) songs of longing and lost youth, his audience of Sir Toby (Ron Cook) and Sir Andrew host faces of such forlornness and desolation, that their essential loneliness is obvious. A scene of combative dancing in Orsino's male household hints at the macho world which Cesario has infiltrated. Malvolio receives the letter ruse on a beach with an impressively vast backdrop of sky, suggesting the boundless hope of wild dreams apparently fulfilled. This sort of well-judged gesture results in a classic production blissfully free from idiosyncratic quirks. Instead, this Twelfth Night is endowed with acting and directing which has the confidence to recognise when less is more.

Twelfth Night
Written by William Shakespeare
Directed by Michael Grandage

With: Mark Bonnar, Norman Bowman, James Howard, Victoria Hamilton, Ian Drysdale, Ron Cook, Samantha Spiro, Guy Henry, Zubin Varla, Indira Varma, Derek Jacobi, Lloyd Hutchinson, Alex Waldmann
Designer: Christopher Oram
Lighting designer: Neil Austin
Composer: Julian Philips
Sound designer: Fergus O'Hare
Choreographer: Ben Wright
Running time: Two hours 30 minutes with one interval
Box Office: 0844 482 5120
Booking to 7 March 2009
Reviewed by Charlotte Loveridge based on 10th December 2008 performance at Wyndham's Theatre, Charing Cross Road, London WC2H 0DA (Tube: Leicester Square)
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