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Twelfth Night

William Shakespeare
Cheek By Jowl (Russian Company)
Oxford Playhouse
(2006)

Production photo

Could this be the perfect Twelfth Night? For much, if not most, of the two and a half hours of this marvellous production it certainly felt that way. I haven't, admittedly, seen the industrial quantities some critics have - one longstanding writer for a national paper numbered 37 Hamlets at the last count - but I have seen enough and enough very good ones including Sam Mendes' valedictory production at the Donmar four years ago and Mark Rylance's award-winning staging a year later - to know that Declan Donnellan's 2003 all-male, all Russian account is something special again.

It is axiomatic that Shakespeare, performed in another language by other nationalities, unversed in British theatrical traditions, can prove revelatory, stripping off layers of varnish to present the work in a new light, viz Yukio Ninagawa's legendary stagings of Macbeth and, more recently, Pericles. And so it proves here. It is not, in truth, the funniest Twelfth Night you will ever see, although the muted response from the well below capacity audience at the performance I saw reflected the greater interest in the opening England World Cup match simultaneously taking place.

But there was an overwhelming sense of performances informed by a striving above all for emotional fidelity. There was no sense - as with the best TV sitcoms - of actors playing for laughs for their own sake. The laughs, when they came, arose out of the interaction of the characters in a given situation. These people, one felt, existed before their appearance on the stage and would continue to do so after their - and our - exits. But I do not want to suggest that this Twelfth Night opts for hemlock solely, at the expense of myrtle and the vine, as Poe had it. Rather it reflects, faithfully, the bittersweet character of Shakespeare's writing which, in its catching after pleasures and recognition of their transitory nature - the song "love's a stuff will not endure" - is very Russian.

The staging is stripped back, props kept to a minimum. Black drapes unfold to the stage for the first half of the production after an expository opening scene before the action proper gets under way with Orsino's "if music be the food of love" speech. The latter elicits a beguiling bossa nova-style number performed by the cast. A similar, joyous number marks the play's finale. In the second half, white drapes replace black with the cast exchanging black uniforms or dinner suits for white suits.

As with the similar UK all-male ensemble Propeller, there is at no time a sense of campery or Twankery. As observed, Russian theatre companies seem committed to a searching for emotional truth, often spending years in rehearsal - this production first premiered in 2003. But rather than resulting in staleness, this lengthy and painstaking approach to a text seems to enable actors to reach bedrock, achieving in the process performances that are exquisitely detailed and utterly true.

Time and again this production brings new insights. In Donnellan and his company's hands, the play seems to be an exploration of the way in which people are confined to what they are by what is expected of them. Olivia, long in mourning for her dead brother, drops the display of grief to smoke a cigarette with Feste before hurriedly passing it to him on the arrival of her steward, Malvolio. And he, here, is not the cold, puritanical ass often rolled out but a young man, ambitious, yes, but under the carapace of an allotted role, a man burning with unrequited love for his mistress.

I loved this production. I haven't yet made mention of individual members of the cast. On these occasions critics usually say that to single any one person out would be invidious - and so it would. But shining especially brightly in this glittering production are Dmitry Shcherbina as Malvolio, Alexander Feklistov as Sir Toby, and Evgeny Pisarev, also assistant director, as Feste. Superb.

This production played at the Barbican from 13th - 17th June where it was reviewed by Philip Fisher

Reviewer: Pete Wood