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A CurtainUp London London Review
Twelfth Night

If this were played upon a stage now, I could condemn it as an improbable fiction.
---- Fabian
Twelfth Night
John Mackay as Andrew Aguecheek Night
(Photo: Ellie Kurttz)
The Royal Shakespeare Company has decided to inaugurate the glitteringly refurbished Strand Theatre with Shakespeare's comedy of love, longing and confusion: Twelfth Night. After a £4.5 million renovation, the theatre is awash with gilt, restored marble and breathtaking, intricate ceiling details. Now renamed the Novello, the theatre celebrates the writer-composer, who lived on the top floor of the building, previously commemorated only by a blue plaque. One hundred years since it first opened, the theatre is worth a visit just to take in its recaptured magnificence.

Michael Boyd's production is stylised and contemporary but suffers from that which plagues all oft-produced, beloved of school party, classics. Finding it difficult to escape a hint of Twelfth Night-fatigue, it seems to seek out original gestures for the sake of novelty rather than a coherent interpretation of the play. For example, Feste (Forbes Masson) piningly adores Maria (Meg Fraser) but this limits his enigmatic, remote melancholy to a specific grievance. The object of his unrequited love, on the other hand, is flirtatious to the point of sluttishness. She flashes her breasts to silence the rowdy revellers, and mercilessly teases and manipulates the men with her sexuality.

Having said this, however, there are some witty and effective directorial touches. The servants groan at Orsino's (Barnaby Kay) extravagant love sickness with the exasperation of those that have had to bear their master's folly interminably. The design is fresh and slightly otherworldly, drawing out the dreamlike quality of Illyria. After Orsino's first scene, the music stands and piano fly upwards, while Viola's (Sally Tatum) shipwrecked entry is made via rope descent. Delivered from the sea-storm, she sports a Nereid-style costume, with a ragged but glittering blue dress, pale face and dramatic green eye-shadow. For the scenes set at Olivia's (Aislín McGuckin) household, large black curtains provide the backdrop, suggesting the mistress' excessively dramatised grief.

John Mackay's Aguecheek is comic perfection, whether he is pirouetting in a ludicrous manner, being duped by the maliciously fun-seeking Sir Toby (Clive Wood), or exclaiming petulantly and pitifully that "I was adored once too". Seemingly born to play the part, he sublimely combines physical clownishness with a touch of pathos.

Also worth mentioning is Barnaby Kay's Orsino. He skilfully manages to navigate the Duke's shifting moods without compromising the earnestness of his emotion. Richard Cordery turned in a another strong performance as Malvolio. He expresses his supercilious pretensions to power by some ridiculous martial arts movements. His cross-gartering is then realised by a bright yellow leather biker suit, unmistakably reminiscent of Uma Thurman in Kill Bill. The delivery of his gloriously jarring line "I'll be revenged on the whole pack of you!" will make the audience crave a sequel.

It is not surprising to see why this production received a mixed reception in Stratford last season. It has an idiosyncratic atmosphere and is intermittently refreshing but at times unengaging.

Written by William Shakespeare
Directed by Michael Boyd

With: John Mackay, Richard Cordery, Barnaby Kay, Alan Morrissey, Kevin Trainor, Sally Tatum, Christopher Obi, Clive Wood, Meg Fraser, Forbes Masson, Aislín McGuckin, Peter Bygott, Neil McKinven, Gurpreet Singh, Christopher Robert, Eke Chukwu, Barrie Palmer, Diveen Henry
Design: Tom Piper
Lighting: Vince Herbert
Sound: Andrea J. Cox
Composer: John Woolf, Sianed Jones
Fight Direction: Terry King
Music Direction: John Woolf, Julian Winn
Running time: Three hours with one interval
Box Office: 0870 609 1110
Booking to 31st December 2005
Reviewed by Charlotte Loveridge based on 13th December performance at the Novello Theatre, Aldwych, London, WC2B 4LD (Tube: Charing Cross, Covent Garden)
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©Copyright 2005, Elyse Sommer.
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