The problem with Twelfth Night is balancing the comedy with the layers of meaning and observations on the human condition. Director Ian Brown makes it clear in the programme where his priorities lie: the comedy will grow from the actors’ understanding of the text. His production, not surprisingly, whilst not the funniest Twelfth Night you could find, is a model of clarity in character definition and story-telling.
The outlines of the plot suggest the purest farce. Twins Viola and Sebastian, impossible to tell apart except for gender, survive a ship-wreck on the coast of Illyria, but each believes the other dead. Viola dresses as a boy (Cesario), but falls for Duke Orsino who, in turn, is strangely attracted to her/him. Orsino thinks he loves Countess Olivia who falls in love with his messenger – who else but Cesario? The arrival of Sebastian proves the solution to the problem, but only after confusions reminiscent of The Comedy of Errors. The complications caused by the quarrels, tricks and mistakes within Olivia’s household (notably a pair of duels and the humiliation of the absurdly pompous steward, Malvolio) never remain a sub-plot, but constantly interlock with the main plot.
But Shakespeare has given these people too much humanity to play this simply as farce. Ian Brown, in fact, sets a steady pace, the measured delivery of Charles Abomell’s beautifully spoken and admirably convincing Orsino typical of an over-long first half that still held the attention of the mostly young audience.
There are many advantages to this approach. Viola, in Hattie Morahan’s watchful and wary performance, becomes a girl with a real problem, terrified of being found out – not a hint of the pert Head Girl/Boy! Perhaps Susie Trayling’s Olivia plays the sub-text too pointedly, but the Olivia/Viola scenes present the issues with total clarity and no little humour.
The best of the performances are similarly grounded in reality: John Elkington’s journeyman jester, Antony Byrne’s Malvolio, poised between classes and never as controlled as he thinks, and especially John Lightbody as a Sir Andrew Aguecheek who is the funnier for taking himself absolutely seriously.
In Colin Richmond’s design the sea is always with us, both in Mic Pool’s sound effects and in an expanse of beach around the main acting area (a 16-sided wooden platform with a hint of a bandstand), allowing Malvolio’s tormentors to hide in a beach hut. The 1920s-ish period works well and Richard Taylor’s stylish music provides cinematic qualities in a thoroughly coherent production.