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Twelfth Night (London & tour)

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
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This is one of the best Twelfth Nights I’ve ever seen. A great play of love, sexual confusion, debauchery and humiliation is re-launched by Filter (in association with the RSC) and directed by Sean Holmes as an improvised rave with an electronic sound track, audience participation, gale warnings on the transistor radio and an Andrew Aguecheek whose “back kicks” are somersaults.

The impudence of all this does not undermine the play but offers genuine enhancement and a sort of glowing sense of ecstasy not often achieved by more classical versions. “Youth’s a stuff will not endure,” indeed, and our dead of night singing expands to include a soft ball throwing interlude and pizzas passed round the stalls. “Are you mad?” enquires Malvolio at the moment of climactic frenzy, fixing us all with a basilisk stare.

It’s soon his turn, anyway: Ferdy Roberts’ slow-burn steward, who resembles a shaggy-haired Alan Bates invaded by the spirit of Iggy Pop, does rock star posing at the thought of being a fully-fledged Count (he’s only a bit of a count to start with) and strips down to yellow pants and stockings the minute he’s read the letter. This part of the play is concertina-ed straight into Olivia’s (Syreeta Kuma) horrified reaction, and Malvolio’s confinement is an immediate consequence, a dark night of the soul music among the cables, mics and synthesizers.

With a clever doubling of Maria and Feste by Gemma Saunders, a new dispersal of the songs, the removal of Antonio (and Fabian) so that Viola’s twin remains a figment of the sensual imagination, the show speeds by in ninety minutes. Poppy Miller’s delightful Viola borrows jacket and hat from the audience and stuffs her socks down her trousers, enriching the bisexual idea (fully expressed at the end) that she can please two consorts equally.

Jonathan Broadbent’s impetuous Orsino can turn the other cheek as the battered Aguecheek, while Oliver Dimsdale’s riotous Toby Belch – he crosses the stage in Elizabethan ruff and jerkin, quoting from the wrong play, falling over in the stalls, pulling at tabs of Special Brew – is exactly the sort of permanent domestic embarrassment we can all live without.

The heart of the play beats strongly from start to finish, with none of the coyness you sometimes get with actors playing instruments. Sound designers Tom Haines and Ross Hughes are impassive onstage conduits of the musical food of love; Orsino craves excess of it, and will share his meal thanks to the bountiful sexuality of the hermaphroditic Viola.

- Michael Coveney


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