TWELFTH NIGHT: Original Theatre Company
- Director: Alastair Whatley
- Set design: Victoria Spearing
- LIGHTING DESIGN: Alan Valentine
The dust has settled sufficiently on Sir Peter Hall’s Twelfth Night at the National that another version is welcome, and there was much interest in how the Original Theatre Company would approach the play.
Spotting a hint of khaki as I took my seat, I assumed that this would be yet another version set in the aftermath of WWI.
It's a logical backdrop for a plot where so many characters are in mourning but one that has been used excessively. But director Alastair Whatley counfounded this expectation by setting the action in 1947.
A Pathé Newsreel tells us that we are witnessing the partition of India and Pakistan, a theme of self-determination that accords well with the play’s subtitle “What You Will.” Sadly, apart from a few clips of Nehru, a glimpse of the new Indian flag and some music that I took to be Philip Glass, the production never pushes at this idea.
The company is touring two shows in repertory, a fact that has implications for both set and casting. Our Illyria for the evening is Bombay, represented by a simple structure consisting of a few outline minarets and louvered shutters. There is little sense of this being a coastal community; we see mosquito nets but no fishing nets and the shipwreck that has put the plot in motion is not emphasised sufficiently.
It is difficult to believe that even in the twilight of the Raj, the English quarter of Bombay could be such a microcosm. Productions set in Europe usually cast Feste as a Buddhist, a shaman or a defrocked cleric but here, Leo Atkin plays the character as a ukulele-strumming North Country comedian in a Henley boating blazer who says he cannot wait to get back to Blighty for a theatre engagement. The creative team has missed the central point that Feste exists on the fringe of mainstream society.
But there are many fantastic performances in this production. As Olivia, Rachel Donovan convinces in the strength of her yearning for the disguised Viola, finally surrendering all pretence at bashfulness when she realises that however confused he may be, the male twin Sebastian (played by Craig Gilbert) is willing to requite her ardour.
The stand-out work is from Arthur Bostrom as Malvolio. Physically imposing (to an extent that one would have feared for Olivia had her servants not been close at hand), he projects a subtle admixture of Puritanical self-regard and self-loathing. Seldom have I heard his final promise to gain revenge spat out with such venom, and this threat of violence sets up the one meaningful parallel with the political future of India and Pakistan which we know will be unhappy.
Apart from the odd choice and treatment of the partition theming, the production is straightforward, unpretentious and well staged, with Whatley extracting more laughs from the mock fight between Viola and Aguecheek than any version I can remember. The director also displays a gossamer touch as he achieves precisely the right levels of homoerotic undertone between Viola and Orsino while also, through the intensity of one full-on embrace, hinting that Viola may just have a vague lesbian interest in Olivia.
As usual at Eastbourne, the foyer was crowded with intense, intelligent-looking German language students and one always fears that anything less than excellence at the textual level will send them home believing that the treasured Schlegel-Tieck translation is indeed superior to the original. But in this respect the production excelled, the standard of verse speaking being universally first-rate.