Twelfth Night

William Shakespeare
Cheek By Jowl (Russian Company)
Barbican
(2006)

The publicity material seemed pretty clear but even so, half a dozen spectators at the performance under review deserted Twelfth Night looking rather bemused having discovered that this version of Shakespeare was to be spoken in the Russian language.

Cheek by Jowl, led by director Declan Donnellan and designer Nick Ormerod, have a long tradition of co-production with foreign companies and, with the same collaborator the Chekhov International Festival, brought a memorable Boris Godunov to London in 2000.

To be fair, without at least a rudimentary knowledge of the plot and its characters, viewers who did not understand Russian may have taken some time to establish what was going on. The opening scene featured all thirteen cast members dressed identically in dark trousers, white shirts and braces. This hardly aided identification, which anyway was made more difficult by the presence of an all-male cast, à la Mark Rylance (not to mention William Shakespeare) at the Globe.

Creating uncertainty is the kind of trick that some directors like to use to draw in their audience and engage their attention. Unfortunately, it backfired in the cases of those who left the theatre before costumes were donned and the play took off in earnest.

Ormerod enjoys minimalism and on this occasion hardly uses props or back drops, relying on the abilities of his actors and some rather stylish modern costumes. These largely appeared to be 1930s-formal, although with a dash of something more up-to-date, particularly after the interval when everybody moved into shades of cream.

As in The Changeling, the actors performed somewhere at the back of and behind the normal stage space, leaving the audience on uncomfortable, raked seating more appropriate to a second division sports stadium.

There was a concern at the beginning that the main players might struggle to come to terms with a wonderful team of scene-stealing comedians led by Alexander Feklistov's Sir Toby Belch. His impression of drunkenness was so hilariously convincing that it put his colleagues on their mettle, starting with his fellow jokers. Dmitry Diuzhev created a mincing, cowardly Sir Andrew Aguecheek clad in a brown velvet bell-bottomed suit, Ilia Ilyin was a matter of fact Maria and the team singer Igor Yasulovich completed the group as a wizened, precious but lively Feste.

Donnellan is far too canny to let his bit-part players steal the show and drew strong performances from his main actors too. Vladimir Vdovichenkov made a rather overbearing and depressed Orsino, who only took on even the vaguest look of happiness when he finally made a match with his diminutive Viola. Andrey Kuzichev is the assistant whom he had originally taken on in the belief that she was a boy named Cesario. The unusual twist of all-male casting gave us a man playing a girl playing a boy with an identical brother.

Life was little better on the other side of the stage where Alexei Dadanov's Olivia was pining for her deceased father and brother, while falling for Cesario. An extra level of comedy is injected by Dmitry Scherbina's ultra formal Malvolio, never better than in a superbly comic scene when, watched by his peers, he believes himself loved by his mistress. He also gets the play's last word, vengefully delivering a final curse, despite having been fully restored to his (rather servile) position.

All comes right for everyone else in the end and in this case, there is a wonderfully comic scene of confusion made right, in which all of the standard characteristics of a silent movie, perhaps starring the Keystone Cops, are utilised, particularly a nine-man double take awesome in its slowness.

As ever, there were several brief moments of stage magic conjured up by Declan Donnellan. The best examples came in fight scenes, first when Sir Toby laid out and then tried to revive Maria during their noisy night of revels and subsequently as Sir Andrew and Cesario failed to square up for their own fisticuffs.

At two and a half hours, speeded along by scenes bled into each other, this is a short, sharp Twelfth Night that will continue to prove popular as it tours around.

For a British audience, the strength of the production lies in the body language and gesturing, as is so often the case with this company. Inevitably, the language and poetry take second place and, sensibly, the surtitles did not attempt to replicate everything being said on stage. There is a further pleasure as it is always interesting to hear a play in a foreign language and Russian can sound very seductive, if completely unintelligible.

Pete Wood reviewed this production at the Oxford Playhouse

Reviewer: Philip Fisher