Under Sam Mendes direction, Shakespeare has become really sexy. The passion oozes as this tale of mistaken identity and unrequited love plays itself out. It is pleasing to report that Mendes' final play as artistic director of the Donmar is a great comic success.
This production also proves how robust Twelfth Night is. This is the third London production of the play this year, following the RSC and the Globe. It remains very fresh and Mendes with his excellent ensemble produces many inventive touches. The best of these is the use of a large gilt picture frame at the back of the stage. It is used to read characters' thoughts and occasionally to haunt them.
As an example, at the start as Mark Strong's hot-blooded Orsino delivers "If music be the food of love", the object of his obsession is framed in widow's weeds in front of him. The idea continues throughout and ends with a straitjacketed Malvolio and then two happy couples framed.
The first of Mendes' twin aims seems to be to maximise the humour. He is ably assisted in this by good character acting, especially from Selina Cadell, David Bradley as a superbly bumbling Sir Andrew Aguecheek, and Paul Jesson as Sir Toby Belch.
This team proves the undoing of the pompous Malvolio. For the part, Simon Russell Beale sports a waxed moustache and struts like a Prussian Count. He gets many laughs along the way, mainly by keeping a straight face. This lasts until he amusingly becomes a grinning, sycophantic suitor in medallion and canary yellow socks. By the end, when all else is sweetness and light, he swears a vicious revenge. Throughout, Russell Beale's performance is reminiscent of his TV appearance as Kenneth Widmerpool in Anthony Powell's A Dance to the Music of Time.
The second strand of Mendes' vision is the passion. This comes from the love of Orsino for Helen McRory's Olivia. Not to be outdone, she falls even more desperately for the fictional but clearly beautiful Cesario (Emily Watson). He/she in turn leads us back to Orsino. In each case, the desire is steamily X-rated. It is also set off very well by the trembling desire that Malvolio feels for his mistress, the Louise Brooks lookalike, Olivia.
While the simple design and music( from Anthony Ward and George Stiles respectively) work well, the costumes are incoherent, seemingly coming from different periods and genres for no obvious reason. With such an excellent ensemble, this is a minor criticism of what is otherwise a great and very entertaining production. It is to be hoped that Mendes does not now entirely forsake stage for the far more lucrative screen.
Twelfth Night is playing until 30th November.
Reviewer: Philip Fisher