This Bollywood version of Twelfth Night has already attracted bags of publicity and, for once, there is a real sense to the radically reworked staging. For example, the plot of separated twins, magically reunited, is a staple one within Indian cinema. And the emphasis on music and song – perhaps more than any other Shakespearean comedy – lends itself well to the Bollywood treatment.
And, although the Indian setting might be far removed from the play’s Elizabethan origins, Shakespeare carefully chose to set the action in the exotic Illyria, a place beyond the comprehension of most of his audience.
Director Stephen Beresford has assigned Feste as a wandering minstrel, a decision that makes some sort of sense. For a start, it explains how he crops up in Orsino and Olivia’s houses – although not why Olivia is so displeased by his disappearance. Crucially, it means that Feste emerges as a pivotal figure, fulfilling the same sort of commentary function as a Greek chorus.
If the action is going to be dominated by Feste, then it’s important to have the right actor in place and Kulvinder Ghir’s ebullient performance is a huge plus. He almost overshadows the rest of the action.
In particular, the romance at the heart of the play is treated as a sideshow. There’s no spark in the relationship between Viola and Orsino. What should be a delicious exercise in sexual ambiguity has been completely downplayed. Perhaps the production is paying lip service to its Bollywod inspiration, where leading players maintain a certain distance, but whatever the reason, this is one of the most sexless Twelfth Nights I’ve ever seen.
Shereen Martineau’s bland Viola and Raza Jeffrey’s one-dimensional Orsino exhibit no passion for each other. Nor is there much chemistry between Neha Dubey’s Olivia and Viola, where again sexual ambiguity should be to the fore.
They should have learned from Shiv Grewal’s Toby Belch and Harvey Virdi’s Maria. The news that this couple have married often arrives out of the blue, but here at least is a sign that not all inhabitants of Illyria have signed a Silver Ring pledge of chastity. Grewal gives us an excellent Sir Toby, more schemer than drunkard, but playing the comedy to the hilt.
The downside is that the comedy of the revenge is de-emphasised. Many of Shakespeare’s jokes are aimed at the puritanism of Malvolio and the Indian setting seems strangely inappropriate. While Paul Bhattacharjee makes a credible attempt at the part, the animosity between his Malvolio and Sir Toby is lacking. We enjoy laughing at Malvolio in his strange garments – but only because of what’s gone on before.
Despite some nice touches and many humorous highlights in Beresford’s production, the lack of any true romance means it ultimately disappoints more than it entertains.