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Twelfth Night

William Shakespeare
Albery Theatre
(2004)

Twelfth Night poster

For his directing debut, Stephen Beresford, who is better known as an actor has bravely chosen to transport Illyria to contemporary India.

This kind of experiment is high risk and many have fallen by the wayside in updating Shakespeare, let alone simultaneously transporting his work to a completely different culture.

One of the attractions of a production set in India is that it allows a number of fine Asian actors to have the chance to appear in good parts. Apart from specialist companies such as Tamasha, there are far too few opportunities for Asians to appear on West End stages or for an Asian audience to see their peers in action.

By the end of the evening, this eastern Twelfth Night has turned into a real pleasure. Almost everything that happens after the interval makes perfect sense both in Shakespearean and local terms. In particular, the parallels between 16th Century England and modern, caste-ridden India with its beggars and its Maharajahs, become apparent with great clarity.

It is at this point too, that Kulvinder Ghir's Feste, a fool with a weak singing voice, suddenly takes over the show to great effect. His mock Bollywood dance with which the post interval curtain rises is hilarious and thereafter, he is a bundle of witty fun. This is what one might expect from a comic actor who is best known for his television performances in Goodness Gracious Me.

There are other famous faces too. Neha Dubey, a sweet Olivia, starred in Monsoon Wedding while Raza Jaffrey, who plays Orsino, was the lead in the original production of Bombay Dreams.

The forlorn Olivia soon dispenses with the black sari of mourning for her brother to fall in love with young Cesario/Viola. She is convincingly played both as boy and woman by Shereen Martineau, still only a couple of years out of drama school. She in turn is devoted to the Duke.

The tall, gangling and clumsy Paul Bazeley is excellent as Sir Andrew Aguecheek and Paul Bhattacharjee makes a fine Malvolio, dressed like a bellboy and acting like an officious government-wallah. It is they that provide the cement that holds together the bricks that are the main characters with their various confused loves.

This production takes a long time to get going. This may be partly because it is hard to tune into Shakespearean language spoken with Indian accents and partly because some of the experimentation doesn't fully work.

It is hard to believe in Sir Toby Belch when he is relatively sober, thin and looks as if he has just walked off the set of Saturday Night Fever. Similarly, the matronly Maria, with whom he jousts, would be far better placed in Goodness Gracious Me.

The slow start is certainly no reflection on designer Jonathan Fensom, who combines a sloping proscenium with colourful costumes, which ensure that the magic of the East is never forgotten. He even manages a monsoon and random rickety cyclists.

By the time that Raagav Chanana's Sebastian has appeared to be reunited with his sister and to marry his beautiful Olivia, everything seems perfect. The early failings are forgotten, as love and comedy entwine to magical effect.

Stephen Beresford can be proud of his first performance as a director and the Asian community should thank him for his courage in bringing some of their finest into the limelight.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher