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Review Round-up: Donmar\'s Alright on the Night?

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Derek Jacobi pulled up his yellow stockings to face the critics in Twelfth Night this week at the Wyndham\'s theatre, stepping into the ample shoes left by Kenneth Branagh after he wowed the reviewers in Ivanov (See Review Round-up, 18 Sep 2008).

The production is helmed by Donmar artistic director Michael Grandage and designed by Christopher Oram, the same creative pair behind Ivanov, and the ensemble cast features Victoria Hamilton as Viola, Indira Varma as Olivia, Samantha Spiro as Maria, Mark Bonnar as Orsino, Lloyd Hutchinson as Antonio, Zubin Varla as Feste, Guy Henry as Andrew Aguecheek and Ron Cook as Sir Toby Belch.

Shakespeare\'s great comedy of mistaken identity and cross-dressing, Twelfth Night tells of Viola, who, shipwrecked and fearing her twin brother dead, is swept onto the shores of Illyria. Disguising herself as a boy, she takes a post in the Duke\'s court and, on his behalf, attempts to woo his loved one, the Lady Olivia.

Although failing to repeat the complete cross-critic consensus that greeted Ivanov, Twelfth Night still proved itself a strong second installment in the stellar Donmar season with a clutch of five-star ratings. Jacobi\'s Malvolio was praised for its humour and “arrogant hauteur” - described by one critic as “a blend of Beau Brummell, Lord Chesterfield, Casanova and Napoleon”. Among his co-stars, Ron Cook and Guy Henry made for a “terrific double-act” as the two \'Sirs\' - Belch and Aguecheek - while Alex Waldman, Mark Bonnar and Indira Varma also drew high praise. Any gripes were mostly with the choice of setting, some critics finding the sun-drenched early 20th century design created “visual contradictions” in an otherwise “luxuriant” production.

  • Maxwell Cooter on Whatsonstage.com (four stars) – “Michael Grandage conjures up an almost magical Illyria, drenched in sunshine. This is a Twelfth Night as imagined by PG Wodehouse, with a glorious 30s setting, and rich on the interplay between the aristocracy and their servants. Derek Jacobi\'s Malvolio, dripping with unctuousness, is the epitome of servility – while at the same time dreaming of a place amongst his betters … But while Grandage brings out the comedy and the underlying conflicts of class, he is less successful in tackling the sexual ambiguity in the play. I wasn’t convinced by Victoria Hamilton’s Viola, who doesn’t seem to make the most of the confusion engendered by her transformation into Cesario … I did however like Indira Varma’s Olivia, hastily casting off her mourning demeanour in pursuit of Cesario and her delighted \'how wonderful\' when seeing the twins for the first time was the cry of a woman well alive to sexual possibilities.”
    • Michael Billington in the Guardian (three stars) – “The glory of the production is Derek Jacobi\'s Malvolio. You may wonder what this wing-collared figure is doing in somewhere like pre-1914 Casablanca, but the performance triumphs over the visual contradictions. What Jacobi radiates is an arrogant hauteur that for once explains the cruel plot against him … This is a superb performance ranking with the best Malvolios. There is also a fine raging Orsino from Mark Bonnar, who for once genuinely emits \'groans that thunder love\', and Zubin Varla\'s Feste sings his melancholic songs with plangency. But, although Christopher Oram\'s design of louvred screens and Neil Austin\'s sultry lighting ensure the stage looks beautiful, the production skates over many of the relationships. Indira Varma\'s Olivia may have the sinuous beauty of a Vogue model, and Victoria Hamilton\'s Viola may look like a sexily androgynous matador, but the former\'s headlong passion for the latter never exceeds the bounds of propriety.”
    • Nicholas de Jongh in the Evening Standard (four stars) – “Michael Grandage\'s triumphant advance upon the West End continues with a treasurable Twelfth Night that discovers a renewed sense of comedy in the struggles of Illyria’s would-be lovers and plotters and in Sir Derek Jacobi’s Malvolio — who is the production’s star attraction, rendered as an exquisite figure of stuffed-up pomp and circumstance ... The main romantic plot works less well. Indira Varma’s white-suited, grandly amusing Olivia sets the main-line comedy of love-relations fizzing into life. She passes from aristocratic cool to hot ardour as she vainly tries for Hamilton’s unwilling hand and heart. Bonnar’s interesting Orsino, played as if suffering from an overdose of romantic angst, enhances the comedy of frustrated desire, especially in the closing moments when he cannot distinguish Viola from Alex Waldmann’s Sebastian whose gayish association with Antonio is weirdly bowdlerized by Grandage … The false gender re-alignment does not, however, greatly diminish the appeal of Grandage’s lovely production.”
    • Benedict Nightingale in The Times (five stars) - “Twelfth Night is often called Shakespeare’s sunniest comedy, which is fine provided one remembers that the sun can burn and blister as well as warm. What’s impressive about Michael Grandage’s 1920s-era revival isn’t just the excellent acting, from Derek Jacobi and others, but the acknowledgement that, as romantic comedies go, the stakes are as high as the incidents are funny … Has there ever been as snootily correct, as majestically prissy a steward as Jacobi? His first word, which is a simple \'yes\', becomes a drawn-out sneer and ever afterwards his Malvolio is, at least in his own fancy, a Jeeves who is also a blend of Beau Brummell, Lord Chesterfield, Casanova and Napoleon … Nor is he isolated in hilarity. Ron Cook’s sottish little Belch and Guy Henry’s dim, tapering Aguecheek make a terrific double-act, partly because they’re more unequal in size than the two Ronnies or, it sometimes seems, a pine and a thornbush.”
    • Charles Spencer in the Daily Telegraph (five stars) -“Rarely, very rarely, you step inside a theatre and find that you are being enveloped and enthralled by a show that comes as close to perfection as makes almost no difference. Michael Grandage\'s spellbinding, magnificently acted production … is one such occasion … Grandage, who so often goes infallibly to the heart of whatever play he is working on, beautifully gauges the play\'s mixture of laughter and pain. And designer Christopher Oram and his colleagues create a magical Illyria … The casting is of Rolls-Royce variety. One by one the actors take to the stage and you realise that you can\'t think of anyone better equipped to tackle whatever role they are playing. Derek Jacobi is clearly having the time of his life as Malvolio. There are touches of Jeeves in his performance, with that ineffable sense of superiority and the way he seems to glide across the stage on castors.”
    • Quentin Letts in the Daily Mail (three stars) - “Forgive me quibbling over a Twelfth Night starring Sir Derek Jacobi as Malvolio, particularly in a production from London\'s best director, Michael Grandage. But the latest bespoke classic from the Donmar Warehouse stable is just slightly off. For me, this cleft-apple Shakespeare comedy always depends on the prettiness of Viola ... Surely the frisson (for us heterosexuals, at least) is that, when dressed as a lad, Viola is still troublingly comely. Mr Grandage makes his Viola, Victoria Hamilton, wear an ugly wig and pours her into a pair of unflattering breeches … From his first word a scornful \'Yerrrs\' Sir Derek shows lovely touches. The way he splits his final line (\'I\'ll be revenged (pause) on the whole pack of you\') is effortless brilliance, and he has elaborate fun pulling Malvolio\'s face into a twitching, nascent smile … This is a luxuriant show, richly lit in browns and oranges, but it lacks that last ounce of magic required to make it the holiday must-see.”

      - by Theo Bosanquet

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