Twelfth Night

William Shakespeare
RSC at the Theatre Royal, Newcastle

Forbes Masson as Feste (left) and Barnaby Kay as Orsino
Aislin McGuckin as Olivia and Richard Cordery as Malvolio
Clive Wood (left) as Sir TOby Belch and John Mackay as Sir Andrew Aguecheek

Why is Shakespeare such a great writer? It's a very difficult question to answer because there are so many reasons, but one of them has to be the fact that you can see almost any one of his plays time after time, to the extent that you can almost quote the whole thing from beginning to end, and still find something fresh and new each time you see it. This was certainly the case last week, with the Greg Doran's production of A Midsummer Night's Dream, and Michael Boyd shows it again with his Twelfth Night.

There are a many good things in this production but for me the big revelation - and, believe me, I know this play very well so revelations are unexpected! - was Feste. Played by Forbes Masson as a Stan Laurel figure, Feste is a much more central character than the third of Toby Belch/Andrew Aguecheek trio he is normally portrayed as being. And quite right, too, for he is almost a chorus, commenting on the self-indugence (Orsino's love of being in love and Olivia's excessive mourning for her brother), the self-delusion (Aguecheek) and self-love (Malvolio) that is endemic in the Illyrian characters, both in his witticisms and the songs he sings. It is significant that Boyd not only has him as one of the singers whose "music be the food of love" at the beginning, but in particular has him repeating the "strain" with the "dying fall" in a way which shows his opinion of Orsino's lovelorn excess.

With a clown's white face and comedian's loud checked suit, he moves easily between the drunken "lighter people" and the equally - but in a different way - foolish nobility. And Boyd gives him an unusual dimension by having him in love with Maria (Meg Fraser) who leads him on and then laughs at him. I'm not sure that there's any justification in the text for this idea, but not only does it have the effect of showing that even the outsider, the commentator, is not immune to cupid's dart and the pain it brings but it also gives a further example of the cruel exploitation which is the hallmark of Toby Belch's circle. It's a fine performance by Masson - and he sings well, too!

Barnaby Kay manages to convey Orsino's lovelorn self-indulgence without turning him into the wimp who would surely not attract a woman with the strength of character that Viola has, and in Aislín McGuckin we have a more emotional than usual Olivia, one given to outbursts of anger and frustration which make both her excessive mourning and her sudden falling for Cesario more believable.

It took me a little while to warm to Sally Tatum's Viola. It was not until she took on herself the role of Cesario - a nicely observed portrait of a swaggering and yet unsure young man - that I took to her. However I liked Richard Cordery's Malvolio from the start. Physically imposing, he appears at the start of the box tree scene practising some not very impressive martial arts movements which brought much laughter from the audience. His "yellow stockings" were a joy: bright yellow, skintight motorcycle leathers, tightened up the sides of the legs with "cross-gartering"!

The easiest jobs, of course, fall to the actors playing Sir Toby and Sir Andrew, and Clive Wood and John Mackay do not disappoint. Wood brings out the essential cruelty of Sir Toby and Mackay's gauche, gangling and petulant Aguecheek had the audience roaring with laughter from his first appearance.

Michael Boyd provides us with some excellent coups de théâtre: after the first scene the piano and the onstage musicians' music stands fly out to dangle above the stage for most of the play; Viola and the Captain fly in "swimming"; as in Peter Shaffer's Black Comedy, the Sir Topas scene, where Feste torments Malvolio, begins in gloom, lit only by candles, and then, when the candles are put out, is played in full light. The only - for me - slightly jarring note was when, during the last scene, the back wall of the set flies out and Illyria beomes a stage, all black with reversed flats propped up against the back wall. Yes, it picks up on the penultimate line of Feste's song - "But that’s all one, our play is done" - but it just didn't seem quite right.

Finally, mention must be made of the music. There is no attempt to recreate an Elizabthan sound: in fact, the two most obvious influences are jazz and eastern music, the latter a particular area of interest and research of vocalist, violinist, harmonium player and joint-composer, Sianed Jones. It is unsettling but extraordinarily atmospheric.

The verdict? Yet another success for Michael Boyd!

Philip Fisher reviewed this prduction when it transferred to the Novello Theatre, London

Reviewer: Peter Lathan

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