Ticketmaster Summer in Stages

Twelfth Night

William Shakespeare
Bristol Old Vic
(2004)

After little more than a year as co-artistic director of Bristol Old Vic, during which time he helped put the country's oldest, continuously working theatre back on the cultural map, David Farr is off, with what feels a little like indecent haste, to take over from Neil Bartlett at the Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith.

This is the third Shakespearean play Farr has staged at the venue: after an award-winning A Midsummer Night's Dream and a critically-acclaimed Comedy of Errors last year comes a somewhat sombre Twelfth Night. I have to say it came as a disappointment after the exuberance of his former work.

The setting is a heavily dilapidated country house, its elegant 18th century interior open to the elements at the far wall, patched with boards, propped up with a metal joist and cluttered inside with stacked tubular chairs, boxes and other detritus in a wonderful set by designer Angela Davies. The setting is updated, possibly to around the 1940s, although not to any obvious purpose.

The auguries then are good but somehow the production never really lifts off, at least not until the second half and only then when Farr stoops to some fairly crass and cartoonish farce. Early scenes, for example, which in last year's Globe production, had an audience roaring with laughter, pass for nought. One could be kind and say the production is darker; or one could simply say Farr miscalculated. Jimmy Yuill as Sir Toby Belch, a peach of a part, is pretty underpowered as is Ian Lindsay as Feste whose lines disappear in a mumble.

David Delve is more successful as Sir Andrew Aguecheek, here a blazered upper class twit. Best of the bunch, is Mark Lockyer as Malvolio, a twitching, preening ball of vanity, hauteur and neurosis, a sort of Bob Monkhouse on crack. This, you feel, is the real thing. For comedy to work it has above all to have real energy and conviction and Lockyer's performance has these in spades. What a shame then that his performance coarsens so in the second half, particularly in the yellow-stockinged, cross-gartered scene when the need is felt to have Malvolio resort to crude sexual shenanigans. By toning down his performance Lockyer/Farr could have achieved more with less.

It highlights a recurring fault with this production which offers performances of very uneven tone. Charles Edwards as the lovesick Orsino is also pitched way too high ranging only from ferbrile to strident. Nikki Amuka Bird, by contrast, is a wonderfully poised Viola; Rakie Ayola also finds strong moments as Olivia. The verse-speaking, with a couple of exceptions, is clear and intelligent but much of the poetry, the comedy and the magic seem to leach out and the production never seems to have a sense that it is working to some vision. Where is the sense of pathos in Feste's songs, here sung in a flat voice to a tune apparently played by an LP? No, too often the production goes for cheap laughs as when Olivia falls into a tray of water at the end of the stage to no good purpose. It also comes into play during a brief segue into Singin' in the Rain during Prithee Hold thy Peace, performed by Sir Toby Belch and Feste.

Too far by Farr.

Reviewer: Pete Wood