Twelfth Night should be ideal Christmas fare, the tale of mistaken identity, thwarted love and mocking of Puritanism should make for fine seasonal entertainment. Last year, the Donmar gave us a fine production, led by Derek Jacobi’s outstanding Malvolio, so the RSC had a lot to live up to.

Gregory Doran sets the action in a Levantine fantasy world more akin to Arabian Nights than to Shakespeare’s beguiling play, offers plenty to savour but seems to have by-passed the comedy, This is a production that revels in the cruelty of the play, typified by Richard McCabe’s Toby Belch. This is a personification far removed from the usual, jovial braggart. There’s a sense of self-disgust allied with a desire to hurt, not for amusement's sake but for sheer malice.

There’s a strangely non-comic Malvolio from Richard Wilson too. He conveys the dour melancholy of the character very well and certainly seems to relish his puritanism - so much so, that one wonders exactly why he wants Olivia in his bed. His smile is a hideous rictus, forced into place. It’s reprised in the last scene, when he contemplates his revenge as he too looks to derive pleasure from cruelty.

Such grimness is at odds with the colourful setting - although it must also be noted that there’s a hearty amount of drinking going on for a Muslim country - but there are several other performances that seem to come from an entirely different play.

Miltos Yeremelou’s Feste is an ebullient presence - at one point leading the on-stage band in a frenzied drumming session - who, in contrast to some other performances, doesn’t reveal anything of the darker side of the character. He has some great interaction with the audience and provides most of the laughs but doesn’t have the insight of the great Festes. Nancy Carroll’s Viola is a more conventional performance, nicely capturing the (seemingly) unrequited love for Orsino and perplexed by Olivia’s partiality towards her.

Three performances stand out. James Fleet captures Andrew Aguecheek’s mixture of bombast, vulnerability and helplessness very well - one senses who desperately wants to be loved. Jo Stone-Fewings is an emotional, almost petulant Orsino - as capricious and egotistic as a pop star - just the sort of man who could love so irrationally.

And best of all, Alexandra Gilbreath is a superb Olivia - right from the start, one senses that she’s playing the role of the mourning out of duty rather than desire, explaining why she’s so happy to explore the sexual possibilities presented by Cesario, or Sebastian.

This is a strange mix of a production - there are some good performances, and some excellent ones in a handsomely mounted set, courtesy of Robert Jones’ design. And yet, it doesn’t quite hang together. The parts don’t quite make the whole.

- Maxwell Cooter


NOTE: The following FIVE STAR review dates from October 2009, and this production's premiere at the Courtyard Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon.

Gregory Doran’s production of Twelfth Night is a thoroughly engaging, impeccably interpreted piece of theatre. The action takes place in a mercurial corner of the Ottoman Empire, before a set of breathtaking beauty and simplicity and upon a stage which lends itself equally to the public storytelling squares reminiscent of the Djemma el Fna and the courtly gardens of Duke Orsino and Countess Olivia.

The comic timing is superb. Miltos Yerolemou is an outstanding Feste, capable of managing the mercurial mood shifts and malicious intelligences of the Fool, shifting allegiances between compassion and exploitation with absolute conviction. His song "What is Love" is tender and tawdry, full of contradiction, a beguiling mix of cynicism and hope.

Pamela Nomvete, in her debut season for the Royal Shakespeare Company, is equally good as Olivia’s maid, making the transition between lady’s maid to Sir Toby’s aide with great credibility. Doran highlights the interior logic of this transition by emphasising the resentment she feels towards Malvolio when he accuses her, along with Sir Toby Belch and Sir Andrew Aguecheek, of carousing in the small hours.

Richard McCabe brings out the dark possibilities of drunken Sir Toby Belch, loyal to no-one, not even his friends, thus making complete sense of the cruelty later to be visited upon Malvolio. And James Fleet is an extravagantly gawky Sir Andrew Aguecheek. The eavesdropping scene is a masterpiece, beautifully conceived and executed, with the three miscreants secreting themselves to hilarious comic effect in a box tree - ingeniously reinvented for this production.

As Olivia, Alexandra Gilbreath is magnificent, moving from grief-stricken hauteur, delivered in a beautifully modulated, richly tonal voice, through to an engagingly candid young woman, newly besotted with Cesario, suddenly alive to the possibilities of sexual adventure. The joy upon her face when against all her expectations Sebastian agrees to marry her is a moment of pure theatrical pleasure for the audience. Nancy Carroll’s performance of Viola has great candour and directness, which makes her reunion with her twin, often a shaky moment in the play’s credibility, authentically moving.

Richard Wilson’s brilliant Malvolio emphasises all the censorious loftiness of a man steeped in a puritanical understanding of his place in the world, while nevertheless longing to be considered the equal of his social (but not his moral) superiors. His vanity is palpably ridiculous, his sporting of the cross-gartered yellow stockings, and his painful attempts at a smile, truly hilarious, but his demise is undeserved and his humility in confronting the extent of his deception is genuinely chastening.

The costumes are beautiful: from Olivia’s noble Spanish mourning at the beginning of the play, taking in Sir Andrew Aguecheek’s vulgar arrangement of checks and paisleys, through to the exotic brilliance of the Turkish courtiers, the costumes and Robert Jones' set convey a great deal of information simply, which allows the action of the play and the dialogue to be rendered with grace and clarity.

There is great economy and elegance to Doran’s direction, which together with the unwaveringly sure performances make for an absolutely outstanding evening.

- Claire Steele