This is one of the most enjoyable productions of a Shakespearean comedy for some time. Lindsay Posner has put together an excellent cast and drawn very good comic performances from almost all.
He directs with a light, delicate touch, enhancing the humour with subtle improvisation. He is very thought provoking, especially in his daring look at Shakespeare's view of gender and sexuality. This is by no means the only Shakespeare play to use the devices of cross-dressing and mistaken identity but Posner with his cast takes things a great deal further, suggesting that the sexual confusion may run far deeper than surface appearances.
The star of this show is the versatile Zoe Waites as Viola. She starts in a storm scene that could have been drawn straight from a Shared Experience production. This shows the strength of Ashley Martin-Davis' simple set with painted backdrops and a screen that allows easy but effective changes between drawing rooms and the sometimes-wild outdoors.
Viola soon takes on the guise of the boyish Cesario and rarely has there been a more convincing female boy. While Cesario is an excessively pretty boy, Waites swaggers and talks just like a young man and it is almost possible to get taken in by the deception. Matilda Ziegler's Olivia, loved by almost all, certainly is.
The tall, gangling Guy Henry, recently seen as King John, makes a very John Cleese-like Malvolio who manages to mix verbal and physical humour, before the interval, with great poignancy in the second half of the play. Henry does his long monologue so well that he managed to draw spontaneous support from the Barbican press night audience, a surprising but valuable compliment.
He contrasts with the equally funny Mark Hadfield as the jester, Feste, a man "wise enough to play the fool". Hadfield is dressed as Buster Keaton, looks rather like Martin Amis and is often almost as funny as the original silent screen star. In particular, his views on marriage are not only funny but also very perceptive and contemporary.
As if these were not riches enough, Barry Stanton is a very strong Toby Belch whether he is living up to his name or plotting with Alison Fiske and Christopher Good as the maid, Mary, and Andrew Aguecheek respectively. This group of rascals switches from comic to mock serious at will much to the amusement of the audience.
Posner builds on Shakespeare's almost perfect structure to reach the inevitable revelation scene where all is made well and the very touching meeting between brother and sister which with some clever lighting and music is extremely moving. This rounds off the play nicely and adds a little seriousness to the comedy.
This is Shakespeare in light mode at his best and is recommended whether as an introduction to the bard's work or for connoisseurs.
This review originally appeared on Theatreworld in a slightly different version.
Reviewer: Philip Fisher