Stewart W Fraser
As the latest casting call on Hollywood and Broadway, the RSC’s choice of John Lithgow to play Malvolio is inspired. Fans of the actor, best-known for the off-the-wall TV sitcom Third Rock from the Sun, won’t need any convincing of his suitability for a character that is pompous, totally gullible and unable to relate to the world around him.
A towering presence, Lithgow brings tremendous gravitas to the supercilious steward and certainly gets the biggest laughs of the evening. He wrings every ounce of ridiculousness out of the role and when he appears cross-gartered, a smile wrenched from the depths of his self-importance, you can really see how frighteningly mad he must appear to Olivia. As he crumples after his gulling, imprisoned and finally shorn of all pretence of dignity, he cuts a pathetic figure that only the least compassionate cynic could fail to feel for.
It’s unfortunate, therefore, that he doesn’t have a better production to work within. Neil Bartlett’s concept, whatever it is, misfires on a number of levels. The comedy ranges from the leaden (Toby Belch and Andrew Aguecheek’s early scenes) to the overly crowd-pleasing, including a Keystone Kops element that would be better suited to the cruder comic style of The Comedy of Errors. Mugging and cheap laughs undermine the pathos of Malvolio’s final scene and generally there is little exploration of the darker side of this mature and equivocal comedy.
The production is also fairly devoid of poetry which, for a play containing some of Shakespeare’s loveliest verse, is a serious failing. Much of this is down to the casting of a boy as Viola, although it’s no reflection on Chris New’s talent that his performance just doesn’t work. With so much of the play about gender identity and ambiguous sexual attraction, the potential for adding dimensions by cross-casting is enormous. It worked brilliantly well at Shakespeare’s Globe a couple of years ago but here it loses layers of meaning rather than gains them. You have to work hard to remember that Viola is actually a girl dressed as a boy and not an effeminate young man while Olivia (Justine Mitchell)’s infatuation with him is completely unbelievable.
The director fills the stage with mirrors, in which characters are forever seeking reassurance, but this device doesn’t make up for the lack of reflection that the gender confusion evokes in a more successful production. The other compensation Bartlett makes is for robbing an actress of a great role by casting actresses in three of the male roles. Marjorie Yates, Annabel Leventon and Joanne Howarth’s characterisations as Sir Toby, Sir Andrew and Fabian are clever enough but the effect is just bizarre with a feel of arbitrariness about it.
As the court jester Feste, James Clyde goes a long way to overcoming the inherent problems of the Shakespearian fool although his novel faded-rock-star approach, ingenious at first, starts to become tiresome by the end of the play. His rendition of the songs is excellent, though, and the lively score, provided by Simon Deacon and including a clever Noel Coward parody, adds much-needed colour to balance Kandis Cooks grim and sparse Edwardian setting.
Despite its shortcomings, the production is fast-moving, constantly entertaining, certainly never boring and well worth seeing for Lithgow’s performance alone.