The return of Sir Peter Hall to the National Theatre, which he led for 15 tempestuous years, was always going to be a major event and Twelfth Night, described by Hall as the “masterwork among the comedies”, seemed like a perfect choice.
As expected from a Hall production, the verse is beautifully spoken and the staging is elegant, right from the opening tableau of Orsino's court, looking for all the world, like a Van Dyk painting. But for all elegance, the production is curiously flat and, most criminally of all, lacking in humour, strangely for a work described by Hall as “heartbreakingly funny”.
Part of the problem is Rebecca Hall's Viola. While I applaud her enunciation, the gender ambiguity of the role is missing. The scene where Orsino compels to confess her desires should be the emotional centrepiece of the play, but here it resembles a type of parlour game, capturing little of the sexual confusion.
Simon Paisley Day as Malvolio (with a striking resemblance to Shakespeare himself) captures the puritanical soul of the steward but fails to get to grips with his ambition or his sexual desire for Olivia - the yellow stocking scene raises just a few giggles from the audience. Simon Callow's Sir Toby never really convinces as a bawdy, drunken japester outstaying his welcome – the bonhomie feels too contrived. And Marton Csokas’ Orsino has a rather curious manner, looking and sounding more like a refugee from a bohemian opium den.
There are compensations though. Charles Edwards’ Aguecheek is one of the funniest I've seen. His is not the usual thin-faced fop but someone trying to be one of the lads yet touchingly aware of his own shortcomings. There is also an unusually melancholic Feste from David Ryall, with his bloodhound-like demeanour and sad smile; a clown fully aware that his clowning days are nearing the end. And Amanda Drew’s Olivia is perhaps too easily ready to cast off her mourning habits and embrace the possibility of love with the disguised Viola.
There’s a genuine beauty to Hall’s production, a mood enhanced by Mick Sands' music. But Twelfth Nightis not a chamber piece nor a painting for the gallery; it's a chaotic, uproariously funny slice of life that lifts the lid on a world of lechery, pride and ambition. And for all the stateliness and aesthetic pleasure of Hall's production, these baser emotions are never quite revealed.