The Regent’s Park season kicked off with the rather unseasonal Twelfth Night – although the temperatures were more akin to January than June. Director Timothy Sheader has set the play in some sunny, far-flung reach of the Spanish empire, an Illyria where pirates hold sway – and a setting even more incongruous in the frozen wastes of Regent’s Park.
But what made the setting even stranger was not the sight of blankets and duvets in the audience, nor even the parrot settling on the shoulder of one of Olivia’s maids, but an opening containing Orsino and Olivia strolling through the town. As a good deal of the action of the play depends on the unavailability of Olivia, closeted as she is in a house of mourning, and as Orsino chooses to shut up himself away and woo by proxy, it’s a peculiar decision to have them taking the evening air together.
Olivia’s grief seems particularly strange. She casts off her veil very quickly and, rather exotically smokes cigars while receiving the disguised Viola. And rather than carefully preserving her chastity, Sirene Saba’s Olivia seems well up for it, leaping into Feste’s arms and making her attentions on Viola all too plain.
We’re also missing the sexual ambiguity of Viola’s relationships with Daniel Flynn’s rather too roughcast Orsino, We certainly don’t get any of the homoerotic undertones in this relationship, nor do we in the relationship between Sebastian and Antonio.
Simon Day’s Feste is for no apparent reason, an Indian shaman, doubling as a spy. We see him observing both Viola and Sebastian come ashore, so he’s totally aware of the reason for the confusion: That makes sense if one wants to think of him in delighting in all the confusion as the others do when Malvolio is tricked, but there’s no indication that he’s revelling in the mistaken identities and it also renders his scene with Sebastian nonsensical.
The biggest disappointment is Martin Jarvis’s Malvolio. There’s none of the cold authority that makes him so hateful a character; and that makes Maria and Sir Toby’s trick work so well. Pompously blowing his whistle like a parks football ref, he’s more like a minor bureaucrat than the ambitious, self-regarding puritan. It’s true that the letter-reading scene is funny but this is an almost impossible scene to mess up.
There are some plus points, Day sings Feste’s songs beautifully, Mariah Gale makes for an affecting Viola (and the ‘dual’ with Aguecheek is well-handled) and Desmond Barrit is a world-weary Sir Toby, torn between the delights of the bottle and his Maria, but with an underlying sadness.
Perhaps it was the cold numbing the audience and freezing the sexual ardour, but this is a production that never quite comes to life, perhaps it needs warmer evenings to really catch fire.