I'd tried, as ever, to stay away from play reviews, but had nevertheless caught a sense of the response to this production of Twelfth Night which seemed to be at best mixed. A colleague from work, a long-standing attendee at RSC Stratford productions, hadn't been best impressed - though her reaction certainly wasn't helped by a dislike of Richard Wilson (even though his character Malvolio makes a very particular contribution to the play, he really can't be called the central character).
So how does this production work? Well, the setting is beautiful - opulent, evocative - and thus Illyria magically conveys its Greece/Turkish/Albania origins. The costumes too, as ever, are delightful - even the 'Joseph-and-his-Technicolour-Dream-Coat' that Miltos Yerolemou as Feste wears works in the context. The music is also entrancing, though perhaps sometimes a little too intrusive: the musical numbers within the play, however, are handled well and with a sensitivity benefiting from a less grand-standing tone of performing from Yerolemou (something which he doesn't consistently manage throughout the play).
Which brings me to the performances. Nancy Carroll as Viola/Cesario is wonderful, and is a stunning twin match for the sweet Sam Alexander as Sebastian (the latter still fondly remembered from his performances in last year's Hamlet and LLL). Alexandra Gilbreath is similarly breathtaking as her Lady Olivia moves from closed off mourning to giddy love, and it is hard not to follow her imaginative leap when Olivia is confronted by the visual delights of the twins: "most wonderful!" The biggest shame is that I really didn't feel Count Orsino (as played by Jo Stone-Fewings) was that big a deal: he seemed a bit 'meh' in terms of any real passionate pursuit of Lady Olivia, and too bland to justify true appeal to Viola. But maybe that's more to do with my limited familiarity with the play - perhaps he's meant to be rather pointless.
Elsewhere, Pamela Nomvete makes the role of Maria neatly spikey and sparky, yet also misguided in her edge of malevolence conducting the downfall of Malvolio. The comedic contributions of Richard McCabe and James Fleet as Sir Toby Belch and Sir Andrew Aguecheek respectively are as light as they should be, with appropriately suitable shades of darkness and dim-wittedness also respectively. How were Belch's farts done? I really don't want to know... and Fleet really needs to be on his game to nonchalantly place himself in exactly the right spot to not be concussed by a tree.
But I felt less certain about the aforementioned Yerolemou as the Fool: he's clearly massively talented, stature being no inhibitor to graceful movement, sharp physical or verbal comedy or to possessing an incredible voice. But the pacing of Feste's humour sometimes felt too rushed/manic: I know that without familiarity, Elizabethean wit can by-pass modern audiences but I did sometimes wonder if I had just missed something in the direction or delivery of certain lines.
Moreover, whilst Wilson is indeed a fine actor, but I can't help but feel that his Malvolio is just a little too old and Wilson's physique does not lend itself, as perhaps other actors may be fortunate in managing to convey, an inner youthfulness set free when made to be so foolish in love. The ludicrousness of Malvolio's hoodwinked passion is not just that his dour demeanor is replaced by an uncomfortable and unfamiliar use of smiling but that some longing is released by the possibility that the Lady Olivia loves him, and that this possibility is enough to drive him to acts against the grain of his previous tone of behaviour. Though Malvolio indeed cuts a tragic furious figure by the end, I wasn't quite convinced of the journey his character had undergone. And that felt like a slight disappointment. (I also couldn't help but think of the eloquent way Wilson played Eddie Clockerty and his simultaneous tolerance and loathing towards the cantankerous Janice Toner [Kate Murphy] in Tutti Frutti, though that may be apropos of little).
But, overall, this was a really great way to spend an afternoon. I'm slowly clocking up Shakespeare productions (I'm planning to see Winter's Tale when they bring the production back next year, and the new productions of Romeo & Juliet and Anthony and Cleopatra, plus Morte D'Arthur if I can), so it was rather exciting to get another under my belt. And it was good to see another comedy -- Julius Caesar may be good, but it's not known for its laughs and Neil especially was glad on an autumnal day to get some giggles in place.
Anyway, Twelfth Night currently runs at Stratford until 21 November before hitting London from pre-Xmas until late February 2010.
*Clearly my European identification abilities are currently scrambled along with my vocal system. ARGH!