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Review Round-up: Wilson's Festive First Night

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One notable exception to the usual dearth of West End press nights over the festive period was the transfer of the Royal Shakespeare Company's production of Twelfth Night, starring Richard Wilson as Malvolio, to the Duke of York's Theatre (23 December 2009, previews from 19 December).

Following hot on the heels of the Donmar's acclaimed Derek Jacobi-led production the previous year (See Review Round-up, 12 Dec 2008), this latest West End outing of Shakespeare's classic comedy of mistaken identity is directed by Gregory Doran, and continues to 27 February 2010. 

Alongside Wilson, the cast also features Nancy Carroll (Viola), Alexandra Gilbreath (Olivia), Sam Alexander (Sebastian), James Fleet (Sir Andrew Aguecheek), Richard McCabe (Sir Toby Belch), Pamela Nomvete (Maria), Simeon Moore (Antonio), Jo Stone-Fewings (Orsino) and Miltos Yerolemou (Feste).

The raft of three star ratings disguises some major differences in critical opinion. For instance, while some were impressed with Wilson’s “melancholy” portrayal of Malvolio, others, including the Guardian's Michael Billington, felt his “poker-backed” performance was overly influenced by his desire to “shed the Victor Meldrew stereotype” (the Daily Telegraph's Dominic Cavendish suggested on the other hand that the interpretation, at least vocally, was “99 per cent Meldrew”).

Elsewhere, Alexandra Gilbreath was widely praised for her “outstanding” depiction of the wealthy countess Olivia and special mentions also went to Miltos Yeremelou for the “ebullient presence” of Feste, the “delightful tartan-trousered” James Fleet as Aguecheek and Nancy Carroll for her “excellent” Viola.

  • Maxwell Cooter on Whatsonstage.com (three stars) -  “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 … 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 … 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.”

  • Fiona Mountford in the Evening Standard (three stars) - “Richard Wilson should be dream casting as Malvolio, the snitty steward who is tricked into thinking that his mistress Olivia has the hots for him, but isn’t. He fails to pounce upon this peach of a role in the way Derek Jacobi did last year, but instead appears cowed by it. Despite a delightful turn from the tartan-trousered James Fleet as Aguecheek, the “lighter people” make rather heavy weather of it. Robert Jones’ lovely design whisks the action back to the crumbling-pillared Levant of Byron’s time, although we’d need more elegant ruins than this to distract us from the fatal lack of poignancy that Olivia (Alexandra Gilbreath, too breathy) and Viola (Nancy Carroll, too bluff) manage to generate around their confused situations.”

  • Michael Billington in the Guardian (three stars) - “… Gregory Doran's imported Stratford revival, with its eastern Mediterranean setting and casting of Richard Wilson as Malvolio, is picturesque, pleasant and popular. I still feel, however, that Doran finds more comedy in the play's romantic complexities than he does in its social divisions … This is partly because of Alexandra Gilbreath's outstanding Olivia: the best since Geraldine McEwan. Gilbreath plays this wealthy countess as a volatile, skittish, humorous woman aching to escape from her ritualistic mourning for her brother. She also has the true Shakespearean capacity to turn, emotionally, on a sixpence: her testy rage at her drunken uncle, Sir Toby, is transformed in a split second to a breathy ardour for the handsome Sebastian, mistaken for his disguised twin … But the production's Levantine setting, with its bustling bazaars and bushy-bearded priests, deprives the comedy of some of its deeply English social precision. Much as I enjoyed Wilson's poker-backed Malvolio, he is so anxious to shed the Victor Meldrew stereotype that he makes the aged steward seem almost endearing in his hopeless passion for Olivia: it's a good performance but I'd have liked more puritanical repressiveness.”

  • Dominic Cavendish in the Daily Telegraph (three stars) - “Who’s hugely excited by the fact that Gregory Doran’s production features Alexandra Gilbreath as Olivia, or Richard McCabe as Sir Toby Belch, or James Fleet as Sir Andrew Aguecheek? These are fine actors – and they deliver fine work here, McCabe and Fleet achieving the evening’s most acrid comedy in their double-portrait of flatulent male inadequacy, impotence and sozzled regret … Does Wilson have what it takes to convince as a comically humourless steward who jeopardises his position by taking that position too seriously? Absolutely. His face is all winter – when he flashes a creepy grimace of a smile, the brightness is so false you almost have to avert your gaze. He catches the hurt and humiliation of the man, too. So what if, vocally, his tone of strained irritation is 99 per cent Meldrew?”

  • Benedict Nightingale in The Times (three stars) - “… when Alexandra Gilbreath’s Olivia cries 'Oh, wonderful' after seeing the twins she’s successively wooed and wed, why must she sound as if she’s looking forward to an orgiastic threesome? … That’s a special pity. Until a farcical, over-the-top ending, her Olivia has caught the balance of a play that’s at once romantic, comical and oddly troubling. She’s been formidable, even imperious, but she’s clearly repressed both a natural playfulness and a breathy yet breathless emotional need. There are other almost-excellent performances too: from Carroll’s fresh, feeling Viola, from Jo Stone-Fewings’ rapturously self-dramatising Orsino, and from Richard McCabe as a sottish, slouching Belch who defies his name by persistently letting wind from an aperture way below his mouth - and from Richard Wilson. His Malvolio is an ultra-cold fish who contemptuously ogles the world from his piscine eyes yet has one big secret, which is that he hopes for social and sexual advancement from Olivia.”

  • Sarah Hemming in the Financial Times (three stars) - “Even the comic characters have a dark edge. Richard McCabe’s Toby Belch can be a funny old soak, but can also be both savage and pathetic. Miltos Yerolemou’s Feste has a rueful self-awareness, delivering his quips with contempt. And Richard Wilson’s Malvolio, while he wrings humour out of his dyspeptic delivery, cuts a deeply dejected spectacle as he realises how his hopes of love have been exploited. But while the shadows emerge, the comedy fares less well. The riotous drinking interlude is a bit laboured and the famous gulling of Malvolio is mildly amusing rather than hilarious. This matters: it makes the first half rather sticky and slow and prevents the audience entering into the delirium of the play … There are, however, some fine performances, and the relationship between Olivia and the disguised Viola is beautifully done. Alexandra Gilbreath makes an amusingly vain Olivia, who falls delightfully for Nancy Carroll’s Viola. And Carroll is excellent: boyish, impetuous and touching in her romantic confusion.”

    - by Theo Bosanquet & Kelly Ann Warden

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