Twelfth Night: English Touring Theatre
TWELFTH NIGHT: UK TOUR
- Venue: Theatre Royal
- Director: Jonathan Munby
- Designer: Colin Richmond
English Touring Theatre has produced a wonderful Twelfth Night. While I left Sir Peter Hall’s version at the National feeling that I had been given a joyless lesson in how to mine a text for every conceivable pun, Jonathan Munby’s production sent the audience home in a considerably better mood than when we went in.
Munby’s first quandary must have been what to do with Feste who with the possible exception of Autolycus in The Winter’s Tale (and amid a strong field) is surely Shakespeare’s least funny clown. Munby empowers Feste such that all the other characters are toys that he produces from a box.
The ruse is based on Brian Protheroe’s brilliance in the role which he plays as a wastrel Irish musician who accompanies himself on piano while maximising the musical interludes and developing them from a distraction for lovesickness to the fulcrum of the play. Feste’s omnipresence also makes the Sir Topaz scene (frequently cut) appear an integral part of the action rather than a distraction.
Rose Reynolds (Viola) and Michael Benz (Sebastian) are sufficiently similar in appearance to be plausible as twins, and Reynolds is convincingly androgynous when disguised as Cesario. Munby is more than usually alive to the homoerotic element when Orsino (Jake Fairbrother bland but in a notoriously bland role) feels physically attracted to his page and there is a light musk of lesbianism as Reynolds has to discourage the attentions of Rebecca Johnson who as Olivia is sympathetic when she becomes love-struck instantaneously. “Even so quickly may one catch the plague?”
The setting proves unimportant but there is a hint of the Twenties in snatches of a Charleston and while the title refers to Christmas the action has an autumnal feel until the final scenes when the couples pair off with a sense of renewal. David Fielder takes few risks with Malvolio but is always credible and his threat of revenge on the household is more than usually menacing. He leaves us in no doubt that at heart this is a cruel plot line.
Above all, the production is brave (and pacey) in not relying excessively on the set pieces. Malvolio’s cross-gartered entry raises plenty of laughs but is not overdone, the eavesdropping is never laboured and the mock duel has good visual gags but takes only a few seconds. The moments in which Sebastian and Olivia miss each other are agonising when they can so often be clumsy, and the reconciliation scene contains deep emotion that gains resonance when contrasted with the sexual and taproom banter that has preceded it. English Touring Theatre can do little wrong at the moment.