In cast lists of Twelfth Night Curio is one of two gentlemen attending on Duke Orsino and Fabian a member of Olivia’s household, Curio barely defined as a character and Fabian so ambiguous that directors constantly redefine his role: many years ago, at the old Leeds Playhouse, he became an icecream salesman! At York Theatre Royal, however, they play a major part in creating the style of the production as, armed with flute and violin, they come close to replacing Feste as the troubadour(s) linking the palaces of Duke and Countess.

In the early scenes, in particular, director Juliet Forster imaginatively establishes the atmosphere of each scene, creating the sense of a dream landscape at odds with the violent reality of Viola’s escape from the sea. The music (composed by Christopher Madin and played onstage by Ian Harris and Dan Willis) contributes most attractively to this, but it also slows down the pace of what gives every sign of being a long Twelfth Night until a skipping last act.

Similarly Forster’s regard for Viola as a character who “stands out from the rest with vividness and vitality” proves a major strength and a minor drawback. It’s difficult to argue with the primacy of Viola, the orphaned foreigner who lands on the coast of Illyria and, in male disguise, upsets the self-regarding games of high society. Viola/Cesario disturbs the balance between Duke Orsino and Countess Olivia, unrequited suitor and mourning daughter/sister, as a woman by falling in love with Orsino and as a (supposed) youth by attracting the love of Olivia. Only by the appearance of a fourth element (the twin brother, mercifully not drowned, whom Viola so closely resembles) can relationships prosper.

As Viola Danielle King’s intelligent and detailed performance conveys her intellectual and emotional reaction to all the events of Illyria, but lacks the naturalness of Jade Anouka’s Olivia. More youthful than is often the case, she radiates joy in life despite the elaborate black dress and combines vulnerability with a winning sense of mischief. As Orsino Sam Hazeldine’s seriousness is refreshingly free of the aching narcissism the character sometimes attracts.

The between-classes disreputables in Olivia’s household similarly avoid stereotyping and, interestingly, the balance of power in the plotters shifts firmly to Maria, Olivia’s gentlewoman (Jacqueline Wood) who moves up in the world in every respect: height (Forster ignores the textual indications of her small size), social class and her superiority over the pathetic drunkards Sir Toby and Sir Andrew. As their victim, Dick Bradnum’s Welsh Malvolio elongates vowels with absurd dignity, a splendidly judged comic performance that just lacks the hint of danger at the end.

Dawn Allsopp’s designs effectively combine a fading pleasure dome with a gymnasium, but I have mixed feelings about the costumes. It is odd that a play with so many detailed references to items of dress inspires such frequent updating. Here the yellow stockings cross gartered work well, but the miscellaneous costumes (mostly not too far from 1900) include a distinctly unflattering garb for Viola as Cesario.

-Ron Simpson