There's a pall of melancholy that hangs over Twelfth Night, according to director Philip Franks' programme notes. He's chosen to set the production in the years following the First World War, a time when bereavement permeated all strands of society.
It was also the era, of course, that led to the jazz age and new standards in sexual liberation. And that's appropriate too, for while Franks' production is more melancholic than most that I've seen, there's an underlying sexuality as well.
In particular, Kate Fleetwood's Olivia is a woman achieving a new sense of liberation as she slowly realises that she's falling in love with Cesario/Viola. She captures the conflict between her duties to her dead brother and her emerging desires – it’s desire that wins out. One gets the impression at the end that she cares little whether she ends up with Viola or her male counterpart.
Fleetwood is well matched by Laura Rees' Viola, another character mourning a (supposed) dead brother and another undergoing an erotic wakening of her own. Rees portrays well the bewilderment of a young woman finding herself the object of desire of so many people (she finds herself getting kissed by three characters in the course of the play) yet hiding her own desire for Orsino.
And it's not just about girls who like boys who like girls: there's a strong homo-erotic theme running through this production. It's a powerful element in the play, but Franks wrings out every last drop of it.
Although the production has a melancholy air, there are some extremely funny moments – most of them provided by Patrick Stewart's ramrod-straight, buttoned-up Scottish Malvolio. One doesn't normally think of Stewart as a comic actor, but he provides plenty of laughter to the cross-gartering scene. It's hard to envisage this Malvolio being tempted by thoughts of sexual desire though; one can imagine that his interest in Olivia would be more fired by avarice than by lust.
Scott Handy's Andrew Aguecheek provides most of the other amusement. Handy's is an excellent portrayal, bringing out a human element to a character often regarded as a brainless fop. He combines pathos with the comedy and one actually feels pity for him, not least when Maria declares Olivia's distaste for the colour yellow, and he slowly realises what colour shirt he's wearing. He's well supported by Suzanne Burden's scheming Maria and Paul Shelley's old roué Toby Belch.
I also liked Michael Feast's Feste as a down-at-heel music hall performer, a cross between Sid Field and Max Wall, perhaps realising that his type of comedy was dying but determined to make the most of this position of someone who flits between Olivia and Orsino's household at will.
Franks gives us a stylish production, full of unexpected pleasures. I've certainly seen funnier versions of this play, but I can't remember seeing a sexier one.