What Night, friends, is this?

Twelfth Night, Royal Shakespeare Theatre Stratford, 21 July 2012

The world of this production was a hotel somewhere vaguely hot. The reception was positioned upstage left with a revolving entrance door further left by the proscenium wall. Over on the right stood a lift shaft with a working cabin. A small circular sofa was placed centre stage around a post that occasionally lit up as a sea beacon. The downstage right water feature was now clear blue water above which was fixed a low diving board.

After the sound of crashing waves, Viola (Emily Taaffe) emerged from the water and pulled herself up onto the stage, where she sat dripping wet (1.1). She turned to see a bag that presumably contained some of Sebastian’s clothes.

She knelt and, looking at no one in particular, said “What country, friends, is this?” Her words were immediately followed by Orsino’s famous opening lines to Curio (Ankur Bahl), who played at the piano. Orsino (Jonathan McGuiness) looked like an expat resident of a tropical country. The object of Orsino’s love, the mournful Olivia (Kirsty Bushell), was visible lying motionless and depressed on a bed on the steeply sloping planks of the back wall. This gave us a glimpse of how she was spending her seven years in solitary mourning.

The action cut back to the shore where the Captain (Sandy Grierson) replied to Viola’s initial question. She continued to face the audience, looking out to sea as she compared Illyria and Elysium (1.2). Viola took up the bag of clothes intending to use them for her disguise.

Returning to the hotel, we saw drunk expat Sir Toby (Nicholas Day) slouched in an armchair, talking to West-Indian maid Maria (Cecilia Noble) (1.3). Race became an issue subsequently, so the colour casting was relevant.

After a standard buttery bar joke, in which Maria clasped Sir Andrew’s (Bruce Mackinnon) hands to her ample chest and talked at him lasciviously, we saw his “back-trick”, which was a moonwalk. This modern device was a perfect fit for the phrase. A CD player was set up enabling Sir Andrew to dance like a lunatic, performing a series of high kicks.

Viola was transformed into Cesario with short hair, wearing a jacket and green trousers (1.4). She was dispatched by Orsino to woo Olivia after avowing “myself would be his wife”. Her brother Sebastian (Stephen Hagan) crawled out of the water and lay curled up at its edge all the way through the next scene until his first appearance.

Feste (Kevin McMonagle) was slightly disappointing (1.5). He was played as a faded club singer lacking in both humour and impact.

Maria stood in front of Feste and aped his ‘two points’ gag as if it were one of his tired, predictable old jokes.

Lesley Bushell’s Olivia was one of highlights of production, full of self-deprecating auto-correction and feminine wiles. To have her and Jonathan Slinger’s Malvolio on stage at the same time was an overload of talent.

Feste proved Olivia to be a fool for mourning her dead brother. But she was interested in Malvolio’s opinion, which gave us our first taste of Jonathan Slinger’s steward.

Malvolio’s self-importance was indicated by the name badge on his suit jacket, and there was something vain about his blond flat-combed hair and moustache.

He sneered disdainfully in a whining nasal voice and delighted in pausing over certain syllables, stringing them out as if to prolong the joy of contempt.

His first “Yes,” was followed by a pause in which he glanced down before continuing as if Feste was beneath regard. Malvolio twitched with pleasure, describing Feste as a “barren rascal” in a scornful tirade delivered at close range.

The arrival of Cesario was notified to Olivia by Maria, who was on the reception desk monitoring the CCTV cameras. Sir Toby was blind drunk and could hardly make his words distinct.

Cesario was admitted and found four women sat wearing veils, including Olivia who was poised by a chess set downstage. Cesario was already wistfully full of longing when she said “I am not that I play”. When disguised as a boy, Viola spoke with an Irish accent.

Cesario’s request to see Olivia’s face drew an initial disparaging response, but then Olivia continued without a pause into “but we will draw the curtain”. She now sounded quite vain and pleased to be asked to reveal herself. This was the beginning of her subsequent flirtatiousness.

By the time she asked Cesario to visit again she sounded very keen on him.

Parentage

But after Cesario left through the revolving door, Olivia held her head and looked down at the ground muttering “What is your parentage?” as if upbraiding herself for her gaucheness. She had indeed caught the plague.

Referring to the entrance point for Cesario’s “perfections”, the text’s “mine eyes” was changed to “mine eye” as Olivia crouched and put her hand over her lap. This reference to her other “eye” indicated the carnal nature of her yearning.

Olivia took a ring off her own finger in front of Malvolio, telling him to return it to Cesario. Malvolio took the ring and said “Madam [huge pause], I will” as if he had been entrusted with a life-changing task.

Her final speech in the scene referred to “Mine eye” being “too great a flatterer for my mind”. This phrase was given a similar meaning to the earlier emended instance, as Olivia crouched evidently consumed by the passion generated by her “eye”.

Sebastian, who had been reclined all this time, stood up for his scene with Antonio (Jan Knightley), who was wearing seafaring waterproofs (2.1). The centre column became a flashing beacon. Just like his sister, Sebastian had a distinct Irish accent. Why both he and Viola were made Irish was not apparent. Antonio ran after Sebastian, but no overt love was hinted at.

Cesario greeted people with a vigorous hand slap, a gesture that his friends also subsequently extended to a confused Sebastian.

Cesario entered, on his way to report to Orsino (2.2). A beeping sound was heard from offstage, which was soon revealed to be Malvolio catching up with him on an electric cart. The cart had a sign on the back announcing that it was “for management use only”: another indication of Malvolio’s officiousness.

As Malvolio handed over the ring, he stretched the word out on its ‘n’ so that it was pronounced “Rinnnng”. He threw it to the ground and then got back on his chariot, slammed the mirror back into position and drove off.

Cesario realised that she was ‘the man’. But she certainly did not look so in comparison with her much taller brother.

Sir Toby and Sir Andrew were drunk (2.3) and were joined by Feste who sat in the lift to descends to their level. The picture of ‘we three’ was taken using a Polaroid camera. In a very funny sequence, Feste played “O mistress mine” on an electric keyboard while Sir Toby put a veil over his face pretending to be Olivia and let Sir Andrew hold his hand.

Their main rowdy song “Hold thy peace” was sung to an accompaniment of bottles and glasses being struck as well as the hotel reception bell, all of which prompted Maria to complain.

Malvolio entered in a dressing gown (also with name badge) and gartered socks, something which looked slyly forward to his subsequent gulling. Sir Andrew fell into the water in surprise at this interruption.

It was very obvious that far from being annoyed Malvolio actually relished this opportunity to be unpleasant.

He drew out the name “Sirrrr Toobyyy” to make his contempt crystal clear. The object of his derision spoke about keeping time into Feste’s mic, which amplified his voice, and then pointed the mic at Malvolio. The first few words of the steward’s reply were also amplified until he pushed it away. The others continued to sing their replies into it.

Before departing, Malvolio shook Maria’s hand. But this apparently friendliness was immediately shown to be a sham when he wiped his hand on his dressing gown.

Maria sat and paused to take in this gratuitous unkindness. Her motivation for tricking Malvolio was now very clear. Given the circumstances, her response was restrained.

Maria’s reference to her scheme being “a horse of that colour” could be seen in this context as the result of her mind dwelling on Malvolio’s colour prejudice and influencing her choice of words.

Sir Andrew’s “I was adored once too” was poignant. This moment of pathos at the end of a comic sequence never fails to look like an authorial masterstroke.

The next scene had an innocuous beginning (2.4). A hotel employee used a net to clean the pool, while a guard cut short a mobile call because of the excessive cost, all of which suggested we were in a faraway place.

Cesario’s longing for Orsino was present but carefully suppressed in the speech in which she alluded to fancying someone like him.

Feste’s clowning was underplayed and not that funny. There was an apparent intention to make him consistently downbeat.

When Cesario told Orsino that she was “All the daughters of my father’s house”, the pang in her voice made it feel she was coming very close to revealing her true identity.

Gulling

The gulling of Malvolio took place inside the hotel (2.5). Fabian (Felix Hayes) and the others hid behind the reception desk, while the letter was placed on the chess board.

Malvolio came downstage to admire himself in an invisible mirror, part of the ‘fourth wall’ that was transparent to the audience. He straightened what could have been a hairpiece.

Full of himself, he stood with his legs apart longing “To be Count Malvolio!” Sir Toby gathered up things to throw at him but was successively disarmed by Sir Andrew who snatched the items from his raised hand.

Malvolio took a fur rug from the floor and placed it about his neck like a gown of state. He picked up the letter, but before ripping open the seal, he looked around furtively, causing the others to duck down behind the reception.

There are many ways of making a joke out of Malvolio’s reaction to the letter’s instruction to “Revolve”. This production produced hilarity by having Malvolio run off to the revolving door and spin round in it. On returning centre stage he dropped his clipboard.

Firmly convinced that Olivia was in love with him, he stamped on the mislaid clipboard, signifying the end of his lowly status. He jumped up on to the chair and stood triumphantly.

Cesario had a brief conversation with Feste who was playing on his keyboard (3.1). Olivia and Maria entered down the steps stage right. As she descended, Olivia looked at the audience and said “beautiful” as an added aside. This addition was perhaps meant to hint at her subconscious realisation that Cesario was in fact female.

Olivia was self-deprecatingly apologetic about the ring trick. She knelt before Cesario when saying that “a cypress, not a bosom, hideth my heart” and seized on pity being “as a degree to love”.

She kissed Cesario at “Nor wit nor reason can my passion hide.” Cesario was shocked and the rest of Olivia’s speech was turned into an excuse for her rashness. On that dramatic change in their relationship, the interval came.

The second half got underway on a comic note as Sir Andrew grumbled his way to the front of the stage and got out his mobile to book a “taxi to the airport please” in an interesting adlib (3.2). His overarching lack of seriousness seemed to license his deviations from the text.

The text’s line about “I had as lief be a Brownist as a politician” was changed to something like “am I a politician?” at which the audience chortled.

Sir Toby indicated that he would not deliver Sir Andrew’s message by throwing his friend’s phone into the water. Then Maria came with news of Malvolio’s approach.

After a brief scene with Sebastian and Antonio (3.3), Malvolio made his grand entrance via the lift (3.4). He wore very tight tights with yellow garters across them. They were so constrictive that they obliged him to waddle as he could not flex his knees. As Olivia looked on aghast, he stood and pulled apart the top of his jacket to reveal a yellow gartered codpiece. His “Sweet lady, ho, ho” was hysterical. The obstruction in the blood was in the codpiece. And predictably even this get-up was adorned with a name tag.

As soon as Olivia had said “Wilt thou go to bed, Malvolio?” she turned away and put her head in her hands as she realised the full import of her words. This was something Olivia did a lot, immediately upbraiding herself for her inappropriate utterances and actions.

Malvolio kissed his hand, warranting Olivia’s comment to that effect. He chased Olivia onto the diving board, accosting her before she ran off to find Cesario. Malvolio was left alone to construe Olivia’s reactions as agreeing with the faked letter.

Sir Toby and the others returned and used a crucifix to fend off Malvolio. The steward climbed the stairs showing the bare bum cheeks exposed by his thong. This provoked a second wave of audience laughter at this extra indignity.

At her next meeting with Cesario, Olivia hung a miniature around her neck and was coquettish in requesting him to “come again tomorrow”.

When Cesario and Sir Andrew were eventually brought together in combat, Fabian had to restrain him from escaping, while Sir Toby pointed Sir Andrew in his direction pretending that he was in fact aching to break free and fight with him.

In another quaint rewrite, Sir Andrew offered to give Cesario his Kawasaki 750, rather than his “horse, grey Capulet”.

Metal

The pair met as Sir Andrew wielded a metal rod and Cesario swatted at him with a similar implement. Antonio ran in and fended off Sir Andrew before being arrested. His mention of Sebastian set Viola thinking.

Sir Andrew tried to fight Sebastian but he more than defended himself and hit back (4.1). Olivia, now in a floral dress rather than dark clothes, mistook him for Cesario, though given the height difference this began to look improbable.

Maria dressed Feste as a priest at the top of lift shaft (4.2). The stage below was kept in darkness. As the lift cage descended, it was possible to see that the floor numbers had changed to indicate a descent into the hotel basement.

The lights came up on Malvolio, tied up on the seat of his cart with the “for management use only” sign round his neck in mockery of his position. The cart lights flashed as it beeped plaintively. Sir Topas used jump leads to torture Malvolio, an echo of their use by Slinger as Dr Pinch.

Malvolio’s tormenter went back up in the lift and descended again as Feste.

The morning after his night with Olivia, Sebastian stood on the stairs at the side of the stage (4.3). Olivia entered in a white wedding dress accompanied by a Greek Orthodox priest (Sandy Grierson again), which provided a slightly more accurate fix on the production’s location. Her dress provided hilarious context for her line “Blame not this haste of mine”.

Orsino, in the company of Cesario, arrived with flowers and a gift for Olivia (5.1). Antonio was escorted through, but precisely why he was in a hotel lobby remained to be seen.

Olivia entered, took Orsino’s gifts and threw them in the water, which made sense of Orsino’s description of her as “Still so cruel”.

Orsino’s verbal threat against Cesario was not accompanied by any violent action. It appeared to be just words. Orsino exited through the revolving door and Cesario followed. willing to die “a thousand deaths” for him. Olivia’s cry of “Husband” made Cesario stop and turn, while Orsino repeated the word as a question.

Sir Andrew and Sir Toby entered injured. Sebastian ran in from the side door right to the centre to face Olivia. Viola was by the reception desk and looked at him from behind, completely stunned.

Orsino could see both of them sideways on. Olivia sat down to utter “Most wonderful!”

Sebastian turned to face Viola. They approached and exchanged stories. Sebastian commented to Olivia that she had been “mistook” in a tone that implied her stupidity. When he said that she would have been “Betrothed both to a maid and man”, Viola curtsied sheepishly. Orsino was understandably very happy.

Olivia seemed genuinely confused when calling for Malvolio to be brought forth. Feste just made a barking noise when reading Malvolio’s letter.

Orsino and Olivia hugged, which was nice. She also hugged Viola, pausing slightly beforehand to express the irony of their sisterly embrace.

Orsino repeated “If music be the food of love” and put some music on the hotel sound system, but this brief jollity was interrupted by the entrance of Malvolio.

Dressed in trousers, braces and shirtless, Malvolio swore his revenge. He cast his eyes around the entire audience, emphasising the all-encompassing scope of his malevolence.

Feste sang as the couples went to bed. Olivia went first, then Viola, followed by Orsino and Sebastian.

Conclusions

This was the production that best fitted the Shipwreck Trilogy label, with an accident at sea in its immediate backstory. This was underlined by having Viola actually emerge from water onto the stage at the start of the performance.

Technically, the ship in The Tempest is not even wrecked. It only appears so to the crew and passengers as is preserved intact, enabling its occupants to sail home at the end of the play. The wreck in the Comedy of Errors is so far in the past as to make it largely irrelevant to the slapstick action.

The production was chiefly memorable for Jonathan Slinger’s manic Malvolio, a performance to savour in the context of other roles he has played, and the engaging presence of Kirsty Bushell’s Olivia.

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