Derek Jacobi, Mark Bonnar, Norman Bowman, James Howard, Victoria Hamilton, Ian Drysdale, Ron Cook, Samantha Spiro, Guy Henry, Zubin Varla, Indira Varma, Lloyd Hutchinson, Alex Waldmann
Is the Donmar capable of putting on a bad show?
Well, I couldn’t answer that for sure, but going by their recent track record I’m inclined to think not.
This is the second of four plays in the current Donmar West End season to be staged at the Wyndham’s Theatre, the first of which was their brilliant Ivanov starring Kenneth Branagh.
Productions of Madame de Sade and Hamlet will follow next year.
Twelfth Night is arguably Shakespeare’s most farcical play; the antics are so consciously over the top that one character proclaims “If I were to see this played upon a stage, I would condemn it as an improbable farce.”
When Viola is shipwrecked on the island of Illyria, believing her brother, Sebastian, drowned, she disguises herself as a man called Cesario in order to enter Duke Orsino’s court safely. Orsino sends ‘Cesario’ to woo Olivia for him, but Viola has fallen for Orsino and Olivia then falls for Viola/Cesario. Meanwhile, Olivia’s servant, Malvolio, is tricked into believing she loves him, and things are complicated further when Sebastian himself turns up.
The set up provides lots of scope for amusing confusion and misunderstanding; director Michael Grandage seems to have approached the play believing – correctly – that if he could ensure the actors delivered their lines thoughtfully then the laughs would naturally follow.
For example, when the disguised Viola (played by Victoria Hamilton) meets Olivia (Indira Varma) to recite a poem sent to her by Orsino, Hamilton’s careful delivery achieved so much. Viola’s protestations that Olivia needs to hear this beautiful poem because it has taken her so long to learn, revealed much about Viola’s own character, as well as Shakespeare’s ability to combine high poetry with basic human emotion. And it was because there were so many layers to this exchange that it ended up being so funny.
Similarly, when Malvolio (a wonderful Derek Jacobi) finds the forged letter that makes him believe Olivia loves him, Jacobi beautifully conveys Malvolio’s egoism and the resulting ease with which he can be tricked.
There were also many subtle jokes in the staging of this scene. When the letter forgers Sir Toby Belch (a fine Ron Cook), Sir Andrew Aguecheek (a brilliant Guy Henry) and Maria (an effective Samantha Spiro) hid behind a windbreak to gloat at Malvolio, it almost went unnoticed that, as they popped up from behind it, the lanky Sir Andrew appeared as the shortest of the trio. Similarly, as Malvolio’s soliloquy reached its zenith, their laughing suddenly stopped, which worked dramatically by allowing Jacobi to ‘go solo’. Their sudden silence, however, was then explained by them crawling out with handkerchiefs stuffed in their mouths, ready to explode with suppressed laughter.
The simple set consisted of well-trodden floorboards and thick shutters, which helped make the play feel like a story that might be told by a winter’s fire. The simplicity of the staging allowed for a focus on the farcical elements, which were executed with incredible slickness. Effective use was also made of music, with pre-recorded material frequently accompanying the songs of the fool, Feste (Zubin Varla). This helped to bring out the potency of these songs of love or woe which, on the surface, were just played on request for money for both the characters hearing them and the audience.
The second half was not quite as successful as the first. Nevertheless, the ending was interesting, leaving the audience feeling sympathy both for Malvolio, who was hardly recompensed for being so cruelly tricked, and for Sir Andrew who, amidst the general revelry, exited the stage with a suitcase, all alone.
Grandage’s production also closed with one very clever joke of its own, which it would be wrong for me to disclose here. Suffice to say that I left the theatre feeling uplifted and with an even greater respect for the play itself.