After seeing some disappointing productions of this sparkling play, it’s good to see the RSC return to London bringing a Twelfth Night that hits the spot. Michael Boyd’s production adorns the newly refurbished and renamed Novello (formerly the Strand) and provides a promising opening to the season.

Too often in recent years, directors have seemed to have downplayed the comedy; but Boyd succeeds in combining some of the darker aspects of the play with the madcap playing. This is a production that revolves around the excellent Feste of Forbes Masson: particularly in his relationship with Maria. Masson dominates the production: right from start singing a discordant blues to accompany Orsino’s grieving, to the final heartfelt coda.

These two, with Toby Belch, create a triangle that mirrors that of the main protagonists. But Masson’s love-struck Feste gives us an Illyrian Pagliaccio, unable to bear Maria’s transfer of affection to the greater social standing afforded by a union with Sir Toby. Clive Wood’s Belch is much crueller than usual; his hatred of Malvolio more class-driven and his taunting of Aguecheek more malicious than we’re accustomed to. The earthy sexuality of Meg Fraser’s Maria and John Mackay’s loose-limbed Aguecheek provide the laughs.

There are some good performances all round: from Richard Cordery’s pompous Malvolio carefully enunciating every syllable to Barnaby Kay’s obsessive Orsino. I also liked Aislin McGuckin’s Olivia as she slowly unfroze from her hard-faced mourning and discovered her sexual yearning. Only Sally Tatum’s rather uncharismatic Viola disappointed – it was difficult to imagine either Orsino or Olivia falling for her.

The production does perhaps underplay the sexual ambiguity that pervades the text and the homoerotic aspect of the relationships between Orsino and Viola (as Caesario), and Antonio and Sebastian. But this is an enjoyable start to the season – a Christmas treat indeed.

- Maxwell Cooter

Note: The following THREE-STAR review dates from April 2005 and this production's earlier run at Stratford.

Uncertainty seems the leitmotif of Michael Boyd's new Royal Shakespeare Company production of Twelfth Night. Feste, as played by Forbes Masson, is consumed by doubt, unsure until he opens his mouth whether he can deliver the wit to woo. This neat reversal of the usual playing of the fool as a world-weary cynic points up the extent to which the characters in this late comedy live by the favour of others.

Sir Toby Belch owes the roof over his head and the bread on his plate to the goodwill of his niece, something her socially ambitious steward is eager to undermine. Sir Andrew Aguecheek, Olivia, Viola and Orsino all look to others to fulfil their happiness, while patronage in the court of the Duke of Orsino, as becomes clear to Viola, can be withdrawn just as quickly as given.

Illyria then, is a troubled place, something a number of recent productions of the play have been at pains to point up. The problem with going too far down this road, as the previous production by the RSC some four years ago made plain, is that it can bleed the humour from what is an extremely funny play.

And indeed some of the best lines seem to go for little. Part of the fault can be laid at the door of Nicky Henson as Sir Toby, who fair rattles through his lines. John Mackay, reprising a role he performed for Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory recently, is excellent as Aguecheek, resembling a discomfited crane.

Masson, a small anxious man in a loud suit, is terrific too as Feste, assured only when he launches into song (the music by John Woolf and Sinead Jones is very good - lapses into Great Gig in the Sky-style ululations aside). There are also first-rate performances by Richard Cordery as Malvolio, Barnaby Kay as Orsino, self-infatuated and something of a silly ass, and Meg Fraser as a hard-nosed, tender-hearted Maria. A lovely touch in an early scene has her resorting to flashing to stop an outbreak of extreme revelry.

Designer Tom Piper also deserves credit for some wonderful imaginative flourishes. Those who haven't seen the recent Donmar and Globe productions won't feel short-changed. Those who have had greatness 'thrust on them' will find enjoyment, albeit tempered with a sense of loss. Very Twelfth Night really.

- Pete Wood