Twelfth Night at the Donmar Warehouse

  • Has London seen a darker, more brooding production of Shakespeare’s profoundest comedy? Sam Mendes’s final undertaking for the Donmar Warehouse articulates features of the play muffled by most interpretations which stress its many gags: the play’s harshness, the biting cruelty of unreturned love, the sting of class division, the sadness of old age. None of the characters seems to connect with any other, least of all those in love. Their isolation is signaled by the ten-foot high portrait frame of silvered wood within which individual characters sometimes stand boxed and objectified, as others speak of them with pained love-longing. Apart from Malvolio’s grotesque leering, after he’s been gulled into thinking Olivia requires it of him, barely a smile is to be seen. No cakes and ale for this production, though ginger is certainly hot in the mouth. No spirit of mirth and festival here, though we often laugh at the pathetic follies we witness. Feste’s songs resound like melancholy refrains guiding the action. Youth’s a stuff will not endure; the rain it raineth every day.

    The stage is often bare but for a host of funereal candles. The costumes are mostly black and evoke earlier-twentieth century formality. Neither the staging nor the costumes distract from the major characters’ confusion. All seem caught in self-generated love-fantasies that allow little room for knowing the idealised beloved. How in the midst of this darkness Mendes has managed to convey many moments of bitter comedy is a mystery, but surely part of the success is the perfect timing of his immensely talented cast. Far from being ridiculed as the usual hapless lover, Orsino, for example, is played by Mark Strong in measured cadences and with sober dignity. His resonant baritone suggests virile nobility, and he commands respect. That’s why it’s probably the wrong touch to have him kiss Viola, disguised as the page Cesario, during their famous discussion about love. Although the kiss is consonant with other characters’ self-deception, his seizing the boy seems arbitrary, not an unconscious move of same-sex passion. That, and his embarrassed reaction, form perhaps the only off-notes of the evening. Helen McCrory’s Olivia, a role often played for laughs, is here shown to be so deeply self-deceived, so caught up by her misdirected passion for Cesario, that she cannot see the young woman in front of her. McCrory performs skillfully, with determined, even aggressive passion toward Cesario (and later toward Viola’s twin Sebastian), all accentuated by her lovely, dusky contralto. As the cross-dressed object of this devotion, Emily Watson plays Viola/Cesario with wonderful understatement. Her diction is perfect, her voice the exact timbre needed for the intimate space of the Donmar, her now celebrated blank expression ideally suited to the passivity this Shakespearean heroine assumes as Illyria goes mad around her. In fact, clarity of diction is one of the notable pleasures of this production. Every syllable of this dense text is instantly apprehended.

    Another of Mendes’s expert decisions was to cast several of the male parts with elderly or near-elderly men. It would not be a surprise to learn that David Bradley is the most senior Aguecheek to grace the play’s stage history, and to startling effect, especially when he sings or attempts a jig. He’s matched by Paul Jesson’s Toby Belch, whose drunken slapstick is more to be pitied than enjoyed. The spectacle of the two old men collapsed together forlornly as though propping one another up may be among the most touching of this moving production. Come and kiss me, sweet and twenty, sings Anthony O’Donnell’s Feste, himself an unusually aged and acerbic Fool, whose later cruelty to the imprisoned Malvolio seems aptly alienating.

    But Simon Russell Beale, never an exponent of youthful ardor, outdoes them all for conveying both the narcissism of deluded passion and the regrets of vanished vitality. His Malvolio is one of the more sullen interpretations of that disturbing role. Russell Beale’s famous voice announces resentment from the start, and rages through his final stinging words of revenge on the whole pack of his tormentors. All his movements, particularly as he sashays across the stage with self-important would-be grandeur, convey his misguided attempt to rise above his class station. Never has the gulling scene revealed a stronger sense of Malvolio’s self-love or a greater desire to use others for his own aggrandisement. His every syllable, scorchingly enunciated, suggests reservoirs of ignorant seething. It’s a keenly felt performance that will surely rank as one of the finest Malvolios of the age.

    Would that this production could play the Donmar longer, for it enriches our view of the play. It’s immeasurably melancholy, and opens tragedy deep beneath its shining comic surface.

    (Richard Mallette )

    Next review by Matthew Fay

    Oct 02

    Mendes' rare jewel of a production of this problem comedy achieves clarity without a loss of subtlety. Throughout, the performances are detailed and resonant, with, for example, Simon Russell Beale once again showing an ability to find the warm, human side of a difficult character, here playing Malvolio following on from his much-praised Vanya. It is a love-drenched evening, richly underscored by live musicians, musical and magical in almost equal measure.

    At the heart of the production is a simplicity, added to which is a truthfulness in all the performances. The set is simple: covered with candles, some suspended as lanterns around the stage, with simple chairs and a large empty frame, doubling as a doorway into and out of the magical world of the play. Nothing distracts from the language, here eloquently spoken by a hugely capable cast. An obvious lack of heavy furniture points maximum attention onto the actors and allows the scenes as it were to bleed into one another, thus supporting the sense that we are witnessing an enchantment, a mixture of fantasy and delusion.

    The intimacy of the setting in the small Donmar theatre ensures that the actors do not need to resort to bombast, and there is almost nothing to separate the audience from the intensely experienced feelings of love and anguish we see onstage. The production begins brilliantly as in a film with all attention on Viola -- Emily Watson here more convincing to my mind than she was in Vanya -- on the threshold of Illyria, and requesting information from a disappearing body of shadowy, gangsterish types in subtle noir-ish light. I have to say, however, that this approach was less successful with the participation of Sebastian and the farcical mistakes of identity in the second half, which was altogether less strong than the first.

    For those who have seen Sam Mendes' recent film, The Road to Perdition, the thirties setting, and the stylized blues and purples in the lighting will be familiar. This works wonderfully with the household of Olivia, herself a film star of the silent era, complete with Louise Brooks bob, with Sir Toby a clubbable figure in bowler with bushy mustache. David Bradley as Andrew Aguecheek is simply wonderful, with his limp hair, carefully combed over his bald patch, and hanging literally like "flax upon a distaff". The scenes between the three of them and Feste are simply magical. As far as Malvolio is concerned, Russell Beale is almost too good, by which I mean he invests the role with too great a sympathy, for finally Malvolio, wronged though he is, is ill-willed.

    It is an odd trick of the play that Viola' s restoration to womanhood, and hence her marriage to Orsino, depends ultimately on Malvolio's co-operation. This is because Orsino declares he will not wed her until she appears to him in her woman's weeds, clothing which, it transpires Malvolio has come into possession of through the imprisoned sea captain. So unless they catch up with Malvolio at the end of the play, and persuade him to return Viola's clothes, the happy ending cannot take place. Though this is a detail, it captures the sense of unease which a good production of the play, which this is, produces in its audience.

    (Matthew Fay)

    PAUL TAYLOR for THE INDEPENDENT says, "Simon Russell Beale's magnificent Malvolio..." NICHOLAS DE JONGH for THE EVENING STANDARD says, "Night to remember as Mendes delivers a farewell delight." MICHAEL BILLINGTON for THE GUARDIAN says, "This is the best Twelfth Night since John Barton's 30 years ago; and one filled with the same rich Chekhovian texture." CHARLES SPENCER for THE DAILY TELEGRAPH says, "Twelfth Night has all the hallmarks of Mendes at his best: humanity, simplicity and, above all, a deep understanding of what makes the play tick." BENEDICT NIGHTINGALE for THE TIMES says, "A funny play — but also a serious one." JOHN PETER for THE SUNDAY TIMES says, "This is one of the two or three most moving productiuons of this play I've ever seen."

    External links to full reviews from newspapers

    Daily Telegraph
    The Times

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