Review: Twelfth Night (Royal Shakespeare Theatre)
Adrian Edmondson and Kara Tointon star in Christopher Luscombe's production
Already this year we've seen Emma Rice's flamboyant high energy Twelfth Night at The Globe – where Shakespeare met Studio 54 – and the National's gender-fluid version with Tamsin Greig's uptight female Malvolia. So, what will the RSC pull out of the bag?
Christopher Luscombe follows his superb RSC double-bill Much Ado About Nothing and Love Labour's Lost with a sumptuous Raj era Twelfth Night where Illyria is set in Victorian London.
It has echoes of Tanika Gupta's 2013 play, The Empress at The Swan based on the real-life friendship between Queen Victoria and Abdul Karim with Olivia, herself in mourning, kept entertained by Beruce Khan - excellent as her intelligent, witty and musical fool, Feste - played here as Munshi.
The first two scenes in Act I are switched around. Petite Dinita Gohil, a luminous shipwrecked Viola, opens the play in vibrant blue sari and lovely rich vocals. As the captain tells her about Olivia and Orsino, they appear on stage. Dainty and elegant, Kara Tointon makes a silent entrance across the stage in a black lace bustle and veil.
Nicholas Bishop's bohemian Orsino is in a gold-domed art studio painting a male muse in red loincloth holding a bow-and-arrow. Orsino affectionately caresses his head and, as his male servant Curio plays the piano, the Duke remarks casually: "If music be the food of love, play on".
Designer Simon Higlett's stunning styling is based on London's Leighton House – the former home and studio of leading Victorian painter and sculptor Frederic Leighton; while Wightwick Manor near Wolverhampton was the inspiration for Olivia's home.
Adrian Edmondson in his stiff black suit and Abraham Lincoln beard is outstanding as Olivia's buttoned-up steward Malvolio forever spoiling everyone's fun – slightly reminiscent of Anthony Hopkins' butler in Remains of the Day. He brings down the house with his hysterical all-singing, all-dancing mandolin-playing yellow stocking scene, breaking into ever more extravagant jigs egged on by the audience's reaction.
Shakespeare's brilliant comedy pairing of Sir Toby Belch and drinking partner Sir Andrew Aguecheek is devoured with great relish by the wonderful John Hodgkinson and Michael Cochrane. A proper pair of Victorian eccentrics – Hodgkinson, tall, gangly and dishevelled, Sir Andrew slight, frail and doddery – making way for some very funny physical comedy.
The Victorian period details are lovely – the train station with its map of London; a Victorian Polyphone – disc-playing mechanical music box – and the exquisite costumes. It really does look beautiful.
There's enjoyable performances all-round from a super-talented cast who, after taking their bows, return onstage to perform an exhilarating original number by composer Nigel Hess inspired by Gilbert and Sullivan and other contemporaries.
Twelfth Night runs at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre until 24 February.