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A CurtainUp Review
--- the Original Review by Lizzie Loveridge ---
Twelfth Night is liked by many as the last and the most perfect of Shakespeare's "comedies". He returns to an earlier construction using twins, an idea that fascinated Shakespeare, himself the father of twins. The ultimately sad downfall of Malvolio tempers the happy ending. Feste is one of Shakespeare's most intelligent fools. Why is this Twelfth Night so special? We know Mendes has been planning it for some time because he delayed it to produce To The Green Fields Beyond two years ago.
At a most simple level, this production works better because the twins (Emily Watson and Gyuri Sárossy) look alike, matched for height and build and looks and delivery, all this rarely achieved onstage but requires a mental leap from the audience. The character of Olivia (Helen McCrory) has been given a delightful playfulness, rather than the serious Olivia we are used to seeing. When, in an early scene, Feste (Anthony O'Donnell) tries to amuse her, she flings back her sombre veil and smiles, casting off the grief of her brother's death.
Mendes has used a large gilt picture frame at the rear of the stage. Sometimes empty, it is filled with the object of affection when anyone speaks of someone they love. We the audience see who is in the speaker's imagination. As Orsino (Mark Strong) languishes in his rather self-absorbed love for Olivia, she appears in the frame, veiled and in mourning. When Malvolio inappropriately pictures life as Olivia's husband, she too appears, only to turn her back on him. The twins are there as each mentions the other who is lost. This frame ties in with the twenty third sonnet quoted line about love being read with looks with which Mendes starts the play.
This Twelfth Night has no storm to cast Viola (Emily Watson) on the shores of Illyria but some Illyrians spaced at the edges of the stage who answer her questions about the country. There is so much more here. Instead of being in the garden, Malvolio reads his scamming letter lying down on his bed in his humble servant quarters bedroom, where all the best fantasies occur, with the onlookers behind a folding screen. When the twins are reunited, despite being a seasoned theatregoer, I felt the hairs stand up on the back of my neck. Viola and Sebastian face and mirror each other in a vision of near perfect symmetry.
Emily Watson's Viola is sincere and beautiful. She speaks her lines naturally as if they are her words and not a script. It was like hearing them for the first time. This intelligent rendition makes her a memorable Viola though Mark Strong's Orsino is rather too ordinary. The foxy Olivia from Helen McCrory confirms that she is developing into one of Britain's great actresses. Her looks aside to the audience, her flirtatious winks are subtle and sweet and totally charming in a mischievous and sexy way.
Simon Russell Beale is a definitive Malvolio. Here is a role where his physical shape is a real positive. His waxed moustachioed pompous Chamberlain walks as if he is wearing a heavy corset, busily moving his legs, while keeping his upper torso stiff and straight. He turns up in hairnet and woollen dressing gown to complain about the noise from Sir Toby (Paul Jesson) and his companions. After the letter, he dresses in flesh cringing, 1920s loungewear, his silver chain of office, like a ghastly taste medallion, on his chest partially bared by an open necked silk shirt, topped with a velvet cap. Brought down, blindfolded and restrained in a soiled straitjacket, he is the most poignant of figures, as Olivia owns he has been "sorely abused". Russel Beale's voice is beautiful, so smooth and rounded.
David Bradley brings modern comedy to his portrayal of Aguecheek, using some of the physical walks that Max Wall was known for. His long lank hair and stringy legs has us laughing as he enters. Paul Jesson's Belch is dressed like an English huntsman, red faced with a handlebar moustache and freely breaks wind and belches to live up to his name. Together Bradley and Jesson make the comedy highly enjoyable and not as tedious as it can be coping with Elizabethan puns. Anthony O'Donnell sings Feste's sad songs tunefully and convinces as a fool worth his upkeep.
Anthony Ward's design is lit by real candles, some at the rear of the stage, some suspended in glass. The colours are monochrome, greys and blacks and pewter with a yellow bow tie for Aguecheek, a coloured waistcoat for Sir Toby, coloured trimmings for the Fool. Mark Thompson's costume is 1920s, long linen coats, elegant fedoras, brocade dressing gowns and full-length lace dresses before the age of the flappers.
Although long sold out, there are ten seats available each day from 10.30am when the box office opens, plus standing room and I am told the queues form from 8.30am. I think I may stand in line for a chance of seeing this Twelfth Night again. Maybe they should consider filming it?
Matt Wolf's book Sam Mendes at the Donmar - Stepping Into Freedom with a foreword from Sam Mendes will be published mid October.
Nicole Kidman was originally meant to be in both these productions of Uncle Vanya and Twelfth Night before filming commitments got in the way. She could not have been better than Helen McCrory and Emily Watson.
At This Theater
Leonard Maltin's 2003 Movie and Video Guide
Ridiculous!The Theatrical Life & Times of Charles Ludlam
Somewhere For Me, a Biography of Richard Rodgers
The New York Times Book of Broadway: On the Aisle for the Unforgettable Plays of the Last Century
6, 500 Comparative Phrases including 800 Shakespearean Metaphors by CurtainUp's editor.
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