Director Stephen Beresford has chosen to set his production of Twelfth Night in modern day India and reading his programme notes it seems to make perfect sense. India is a country in which the social distinctions between aristocracy and the common people, an essential element of this Shakespearean comedy, can be found in India’s caste system and in the relationship between householders and their servants. It is a country where a woman in mourning may still veil her face and feel no shame in enquiring about a visitor’s social status; one where marriage arrangements are about improving one’s social standing and not just about love; and wise fools can still be found in the form of soothsayers who share their wisdom by revealing peoples follies.
Therefore, I was expecting the Indian setting to bring a fresh impetus to the play with exotic elements being added to the characters, ones that would further reveal the plot’s full romantic and comic anguish, however with the notable exception of Kulvinder Ghir’s Feste, this was not to be.
If one removed the show’s design and the Indian accents with which the characters speak Shakespeare’s verse, the production could be set in any location. One only wishes that Beresford had commissioned someone to adapt the text to give it a true Indian feel, for example, why have Olivia grasp a rosary? Why all the references to Jove when there is such a vast assembly of Hindu gods to call upon? And why the constant references to churches, friars, etc? Yes Christianity exists within India, but it is not the religion that normally comes to mind when envisioning the country.
I had hoped the characters would be colourful and larger than life; instead they often come across as dull and hackneyed. Paul Bhattacharjee Malvolio lacks the haughtiness for which the other servants despise him and therefore it is difficult to understand why Maria (Harvey Virdi) should conspire to play such a cruel jest against him.
Any hint of the first stirrings of love by Count Orsino (Raza Jaffrey) for his eunuch Cesario (played convincingly by Shereen Martineau) is missing. When he addresses Cesario with the words, “Diana's lip is not more smooth and rubious” his words lack the stirrings of baffling passion, and so his sudden declaration of love when he discovers Cesario is really the maid Viola, appears incredulous.
Neha Dubey is a beautiful and enticing Olivia when she first walks on the stage dressed in a black sari, but she soon takes on a persona of a frivolous young girl, and so the farcical element of an elegant lady unknowingly falling in love with a boy who is disguised as a girl loses most of its droll impact.
Paul Bazely is fine as the ludicrous and cowardly Andrew Aguecheek, especially when called upon to summon his courage and challenge Cesario to a dual, he looks a complete nincompoop when he walks on stage shivering, dressed in briefs, cricket leg pads and carrying a dented shield. Shiv Grewal is also fine as the disorderly Sir Toby Belch, the two create an amusing comic duo and provide some much needed humour.
Kulvinder Ghir’s Feste is the most memorable character and captures the comic melancholic notes that run throughout the play. His character is the only one that brings any Indian flavour to this ‘Indian’ Twelfth Night, what a pity that Beresford did not use the same ingenuity in giving the other characters an Indian feel. If he had then we may have had a true Indian Twelfth Night to remember, not one that will be so quickly forgotten.
What other critics had to say.....
NICHOLAS DE JONGH for THE EVENING STANDARD says, "Little eastern promise here; "LYNN GARDNER for THE GUARDIAN says, "The trouble with the evening is that it often concentrates too much on concept and too little on the execution and performances." BENEDICT NIGHTINGALE for THE TIMES says, "Bollywood this Twelfth Night still isn’t. A lively, enjoyable evening it mostly is." CHARLES SPENCER for THE DAILY TELEGRAPH says, "Fresh, richly entertaining production."