The RSC’s latest reinterpretation of Twelfth Night, from director Christopher Luscombe, transports the kingdom of Illyria to the decadent world of London in the 1890s, and the bold decision to update the location to this luxuriant, opulent setting pays off. The sense we get of indulgence suffuses all aspects of the performance.
Luscombe’s directorial history at the RSC has been coloured by simi- larly innovate reworkings of classic texts – from his Love’s Labour’s Lost, which was set in 1910, to his Much Ado About Nothing set just after WWI – and the updating of Twelfth Night, while slightly less coherent in places, is similarly effective. From the minor Fabian being recast as the vivacious scullery maid Fabia, played with zeal by Sarah Twomey, to Feste being reset as Olivia’s munshi rather than her servant, some of the updates work incredibly effectively, establishing a tone that is colonialist while still reeking of aestheticism.
It is against this intriguing backdrop that the comedy plays out, and the decadent 1890s setting plays into the text well. The slight culture clash between empiricism and aestheticism, which is accentuated by the very Wildean division of the settings into “town” and “country”, contributes nicely to the tonal dissonance – of all Shakespeare’s comedies, this is the one that has perhaps the sharpest aftertaste.
The taunting of Malvolio, often exaggerated to hyperbolic comic levels, is here executed in a way that shies away from excess. And what starts off with some incredible moments of physical comedy involving statues and letters quickly devolves into quite a depraved manipulation, with the tormented Malvolio expertly played by Adrian Edmondson.
The darker moments of the comedy were also greatly aided by the strong musical accompaniment. Nigel Hess’ excellent compositions, played live by a team of musicians, accentuate the moments of poignance and tension and often capture our feelings far better than the actors, while also playing into the moments of comedy, with a number of more humorous songs designed to invoke the tradition of the Victorian music hall.
Aside from the indulgent creative aspects of the production, it is the cast who bring the play to life, and most roles are very well-cast. Kara Tointon, possibly most recognisable to our generation for winning Strictly Come Dancing in 2010, puts in an excellent turn as Olivia, with a defiant stage presence that supersedes her physical slightness. The comic duo of Sir Toby Belch and Sir Andrew Aguecheek are also played with strong panache by John Hodgkinson and Michael Cochrane respectively. The decision to cast a slightly older actor as Aguecheek is definitely one that pays off – Cochrane’s performance is in equal parts witty and endearing, and complements Hodgkinson’s Sir Toby Belch well.
The supporting cast are also very strong, with all of Olivia’s household staff giving particularly good performances. Aside from Sarah Twomey, special credit must go to Vivien Parry, whose performance of housekeeper Maria as a gossiping Welsh matron brings some of the most heartfelt laughs of the evening.
Luscombe’s interpretation of Twelfth Night is imaginative without ever verging into excessive, and is opulent without being overly indulgent. The cast are strong, the musical accompaniment is stronger, and the running time of two hours forty minutes is sure to fly by.
It will be broadcast live in cinemas on Valentine’s Day 2018, and while the romantic subplots might not bode well for a date, for two and a half hours of something slightly different, you can’t go too far wrong with this witty reimagination of Shakespeare’s most deceptively subtle tragicomedy.
To paraphrase the play’s most famous line: if theatre be the food of love, book your tickets now.
Twelfth Night runs until 24 February, 2018, and will be broadcast live in cinemas on Valentine’s Day