Quarry Theatre, West Yorkshire Playhouse
Twelfth Night was the last production to be staged at the old Leeds Playhouse. Fifteen years later Ian Brown, artistic director of its successor the West Yorkshire Playhouse, has chosen the play to celebrate another landmark in the history of Leeds - the forthcoming redevelopment of the Quarry Hill area into the cultural heart of the city.
Recent productions of Twelfth Night (and there has been a glut of them) have proved the play to be cheerfully resilient to the whims of directors and designers. Brown has been fairly conservative in relocating the action to a French Riviera resort in the 1930's; Colin Richmond's set, a circular wooden platform illuminated by a ring of wonky fairy lights and surrounded by sand, helps to conjure up the holiday mood. Mic Pool's sound design also makes a notable contribution to the atmosphere - the sound of the sea is audible throughout the play - and composer Richard Taylor provides some attractive settings for Feste's songs.
Just for once we are presented with a credible (albeit genetically impossible!) pair of twins in the persons of Hattie Morahan (Viola) and Daniel Crossley (Sebastian). Charles Abomeli's suave and beautifully spoken Orsino makes more of an impression than this character usually does - he so often comes across a rather tiresome over-age Romeo - and Susie Trayling's Olivia leaves us in no doubt that her character can't wait to get out of mourning and into the bridal bed. Antony Byrne, as a dandified and bewigged Malvolio, resists the temptation to overplay his big scenes. But the director's ambition "to create a production of Shakespeare that would encourage parents to bring their children and enjoy it as much as a pantomime", though laudable in itself, seems to have had an adverse effect on his treatment of the play's darker aspects.
The comic characters are as well-cast a bunch as I can remember. John Elkington is a more than usually musical Feste, Colin Mace is a less than usually overacted Sir Toby, and the petite Mia Soteriou (Maria) is a convincing "smallest wren of nine". John Lightbody's sporty Sir Andrew Aguecheek has obviously taken advantage of 20 century advances in hair-care technology; instead of the traditional lank locks he has, possibly with the aid of vast amounts of Brylcreem, created a magnificent coiffure that might have looked more at home perched on an ice-cream cornet. Fabian isn't one of Shakespeare's plum comic roles, but Guy Burgess plays him as a Brummie bellboy in a scarlet suit and comes near to stealing every scene in which he appears. With so much talent on display it's a pity that the vindictiveness of their plot against Malvolio is so muted; if this is a sop to the hoped-for family audiences it may also explain why absolutely nothing is made of Antonio's obvious infatuation with Sebastian. Twelfth Night needs a harder edge than this.
It also has to be said that the production, although enjoyable and mercifully free from the cheap gimmicks so often resorted to by directors of Shakespeare's comedies, is a very leisurely one. Despite a few small (and rather pointless) cuts the show has a running time of almost three and a quarter hours. Ian Brown has obviously gone to great lengths to ensure that every member of the cast understands the play's more obscure words and phrases, of which Twelfth Night has more than its fair share, but I often found myself wishing that he had spent less time with his reference books and more with his scissors.
At the West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds, until 22nd October
Reviewer: J. D. Atkinson