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Archive: Twelfth Night

For the archive we have put our reviews of several productions of Shakespeare's Twelfth Night on one page. Scroll down for the one you want, or just browse.

RSC 2001 - Albery 2004 - Open Air 2005 - RSC 2005 - Propeller 2007 - Filter 2008 - Wyndham's 2008 - RSC 2009 - National 2011 - RSC 2012 - Apollo 2012

RSC, Barbican Theatre, Winter 2001-2

Twelfth Night is not a particularly difficult play, and yet over the years the Royal Shakespeare Company have been defeated by it at least as often as they have succeeded.

Something in this light comedy brings out the RSC's ever-threatening propensity for ponderousness, and I fear that Lindsay Posner's current production has fallen victim to the curse.

This is the one about the girl disguised as a boy, who falls in love with her boss, who sends her with love notes to his lady, who falls for the messenger, while in a subplot the prudish Malvolio is victim of a cruel practical joke.

Typical Shakespearean light stuff, which I have seen modest fringe companies carry off delightfully, and I should stress that the play is so strong that even an unsuccessful production can't be a total flop. But less-than-good-enough isn't good enough.

A key failing of this version is that no two characters seem to be inhabiting the same play, with every actor employing a different style or imagining himself in a different production.

Zoe Waites's Viola (the transvestite role) is in a broadly declamatory Victorian-style production, for example, while Matilda Ziegler's Olivia is underplayed and contemporary (and one unfortunate byproduct is that Olivia becomes the much more sympathetic heroine rather than a comic foil).

Jo Stone-Fewings plays Orsino as so wrapped up in his romantic posing that he hardly notices anyone else onstage, which means that his key scenes with Viola, when they discuss love and prepare us for their ultimate pairing-off, have no reality or resonance.

Stork-like Guy Henry was born to play Malvolio, and he does make him a comic collection of tics and twitches, but he holds back, seemingly out of a misplaced fear of going over the top, when Malvolio is a role that absolutely demands overplaying, so his two big scenes (finding a love letter he thinks is for him, and then acting on it) never quite catch fire.

Continuing the pattern of actors appearing in different plays, Barry Stanton plays Sir Toby as barely one step above a street tramp, while Christopher Good makes Sir Andrew less a fool than a rather sweet innocent, a county schoolteacher perhaps, totally out of his element.

Mark Hadfield has clearly modelled his jester on Max Wall, down to the flat hat and long shoes, with the lugubrious music hall clown's glumness and almost resentful throw-away wit.

It's an interesting idea, but it doesn't work, especially since a clear compulsion not to give familiar line readings twists him into phrasing and singing (music by Gary Yershon) so bizarre that he might have learned the speeches phonetically.

All these are director's failures, as are some of the odd loose ends, like dressing the play in the Edwardian period for no clear reason, or making explicit the homosexual subtext between two secondary characters or the lesbian implications of Olivia's attraction to Viola but then doing nothing with them.

I repeat that Twelfth Night, like most of Shakespeare's comedies, is indestructible, and someone coming to this version for the first time will probably have a mildly pleasant experience, little knowing how very much funnier, how very much more romantic, how very much more of a piece it might have been.

Gerald Berkowitz

Albery Theatre, Summer-Autumn 2004

For me, the enduring attraction of Shakespeare's legacy isn't the weighty rhetoric of the tragedies or histories but the deceptive simplicity of his comedies, something wonderfully captured in this transfer to India of this later work.

It is set in a shambling quarter of a port on the northern reaches of the Sub-Continent and, though the time is now, the life depicted has more in common with Shakespeare's England, since Indian society has preserved so much of the class, religious and gender distinctions that have been mostly erased from the homogenised Britain of today.

The older English in which Shakespeare originally wrote has more connection too, in terms of vowels, weight and stress, to contemporary north Indian languages such as Hindi, a distant relation linguistically. Indian English, a dialect in itself, preserves all this richness and the pentameters roll off the actors' tongues like honey.

This production, therefore, fits the story like a glove. In such a setting, the shipwrecked Viola (Shereen Martineau) disguising herself as Duke Orsino's pageboy Cesario needs no theatrical sleight of hand to convince, nor does the object of Orsino's love, Olivia (Neha Dubey), when she confuses Cesario/Viola with her long-lost brother Sebastian (Raaghav Chanana).

But be warned. The first half is dire, if truth be told. It is part two where everything falls into place to make this such a memorable production.

In fact Viola/Cesario and Olivia are shrill and wooden throughout, while the male leads Sebastian and Duke Orsino have all the impact of (admittedly quality) wallpaper.

The fault here lies fairly and squarely with director Stephen Beresford, which is a baffling omission on his part since he guides the rest of the cast to such a successful conclusion by curtain fall.

So ignore the lead players and sit back to relish these supporting roles to die for. Even the bit parts exude satirical precision - the scornful looks from Olivia's servant (Joanna Burnett), the bemused officialdom of the First Officer (Amit Shah), the doddery confidence of the Brahmin priest (Kish Sharma) - while the mere walk-ons, such as a man on a bicycle riding by on cue in the distance, add comic if fleeting sparkle.

Kulvinder Ghir re-creates Feste as a Bengali "baul" minstrel, his songs mini set-pieces in what is a majestically manic performance as he veers from Fool to Machiavelli and back as circumstances dictate.

Paul Bhattacharjee's Malvolio is a majordomo so steeped in the days of the Raj that his every word or move invites a comeback that could come equally from P. G. Wodehouse's comic novels as tragic epic The Jewel In The Crown.

Shiv Grewal completes the farcical triumvirate as a mind-bogglingly louche Sir Toby Belch, complete with sharp suit, sideburns and an innate ability to imbibe copious quantities of Cobra lager.

Put such wonderful comic creations and their cronies together, and any shortcomings elsewhere instantly vanish.

Nick Awde

Open Air Theatre Summer 2005

Girl dresses as boy, works for man who sends her with love letters to the lady next door, who falls in love with the messenger - that one. Toby Belch and Malvolio - that one.

Shakespeare's romantic comedy should be as foolproof as A Midsummer Night's Dream and As You Like It, but it's deceptive. There is something about it - I'm really not sure what - that makes it a real challenge to actors and directors (The RSC always bollixes it up).

So it is no condemnation to say that this production at the lovely Regents Park outdoor theatre is somewhat less than perfect. Enough of the play's charm and humour come through to make for an enjoyable evening, especially in the magical park setting.

Director Timothy Sheader is very good at moving people around the stage and getting from scene to scene smoothly, and he has a flair for visual comedy.

The letter scene, in which the stuffy Malvolio is victim of a practical joke while others watch, is as funny as you could hope for, as is the later cowards' duel, and the string of doubletakes at the end, when the heroine turns out to have a twin brother, is delightful.

Where Sheader falls down is in guiding his actors to attractive characterisations or, in some cases, to any characterisations at all.

Orsino, the lovesick boss, is a somewhat underwritten and thankless role, but by playing him as a thug Daniel Flynn actually makes him unpleasant to be around; and Desmond Barrit's Toby Belch is too much of a nasty drunk and too little of a jolly one.

In the imposed Carribean setting (which is not particularly exploited in any other way), the jester Feste has become a voodoo priest, but Simon Day looks very uncomfortable under all that odd makeup and unsure from minute to minute whether he's supposed to be friendly or sinister.

As the heroine, Mariah Gale plays the boy with unrealistic swagger and presumptuousness, but gives us no sense of the lost and lovesick girl beneath the mask. (Put another way, she shows us an unattractive Cesario and nothing at all of Viola.)

Somewhat more successful are Sirine Saba as Olivia, finding all the jokes in her romantic predicament her reaction when it briefly looks like she has two husbands gets the biggest laugh of the evening and Martin Jarvis, who pulls off the very difficult accomplishment of making Malvolio both comic and sympathetic.

Any review of Shakespeare must consider two audiences, Shakespeare buffs and first-timers. The latter group will find a lot about this production to enjoy, while those who know the play may find, as I did, too many little disappointments to let it be wholly successful.

Gerald Berkowitz

RSC Novello Theatre December 2005

This is the best Twelfth Night I can remember seeing from the Royal Shakespeare Company.

To some that may seem faint praise, since the RSC has always had bad luck with this romantic comedy, which somehow brings out its occasional tendency toward ponderousness. But Michael Boyd's production is, by any standard, as light, humorous and romantic as anyone has a right to wish.

(Quick reminder: girl dresses as boy, works for guy who sends her to woo his lady, who falls in love with the messenger. Twin brother, Sir Toby Belch, Malvolio, trick letter - that one.)

For one thing, this is one of the rare productions in which modern (well, vaguely 1970s) dress actually adds to the fun. For example, the lovesick Orsino is a rich idler who keeps a jazz band on 24-hour alert in case he's in the mood for music, and the players quietly communicate a mix of annoyance and at-least-it's-a-steady-gig whenever called.

The clown Feste is a cocktail pianist with an unrequited love for the maid Maria (a nice touch, which I've seen once or twice before - it adds an unobtrusive minor key to the action and also explains his disappearance for a couple of acts in the centre of the play, as he goes off to console his breaking heart.)

Boyd and designer Tom Piper also openly exploit the theatrical nature of the play, with props (including the piano) hanging visibly above the stage to descend when needed, and the cast encouraged to play interchanges that sound like conscious joking as music hall turns to an imagined audience.

The whole thing flows smoothly and engagingly and, even though, like most RSC productions, it runs over three hours, unlike most it feels very much shorter.

Sally Tatum is an attractive Viola, though she never looks or acts like anything but an obvious girl, even when dressed as an early-70s dandy.

Aislin McGuckin plays Olivia straight throughout, perhaps losing an occasional laugh in the process, but also anchoring her part of the play in real emotion.

Clive Wood makes Sir Toby a real bloke's bloke, though he might have been just as effective if a little less falling-down drunk. and John Mackay is a strong physical clown as Sir Andrew.

It is nice for a change to have Malvolio played by an able character actor rather than a slumming guest star, and Richard Cordery finds all the laughs and touches of pathos without warping the play, while Forbes Masson similarly mines the sad and comic sides of Feste to full effect.

Like all the other RSC Stratford transfers in this Winter London season, Twelfth Night is only on for about three weeks. It is well worth rushing to.

Gerald Berkowitz

Propeller, Old Vic Theatre Winter 2007

Director Edward Hall brings his all-male Propeller Theatre Company to the Old Vic for a season of two Shakespeare comedies of gender, Twelfth Night playing in repertory with The Taming of the Shrew. The results are, inevitably, mixed.

Twelfth Night (the one about the girl disguised as a boy, sent by her boss with love messages to his lady, who falls for the messenger) is a deceptively difficult play it always defeats the RSC.

The sweetness of Viola's predicament (She's in love with her boss) clashes with the farce of Olivia's infatuation with her, while the subplot of the humiliation of the pompous Malvolio turns irredeemably sour by the end.

Whatever tone a director chooses - farcical, elegiac, romantic - is hard to sustain throughout. And, as it turns out, de-genderising the play with an all-male cast doesn't help, at least not in this case.

(It might have - one of the greatest Shakespeare productions I've ever seen was the National Theatre's all-male As You Like It nearly 40 years ago, which liberated all that play's romance and comedy.)

The failure is directorial, with Edward Hall evidently unable to decide whether to play the female characters as women, men or neither, and settling for Panto Dame drag performances, which prove totally wrong.

Dugald Bruce-Lockhart's Olivia is a fluttering drag queen and Chris Myles' Maria her butch bartender, and aside from being wrong characterisations, they're too one-note, with no colours or room for development beyond the caricatures.

That same one-note quality runs through some of the male characters as well. Jason Baughan's Sir Toby is a vulgar falling-down drunk and nothing more, Jack Tarlton's Orsino almost invisible, Tony Bell's Feste a morose stand-up comic who seems to begrudge the need to get laughs from others on stage or from us.

Only Tam Williams as Viola captures something beyond caricature with an androgyny that walks the delicate line between effeminate maleness and the essence of femininity, thus paradoxically creating almost the only real-feeling human character onstage and providing the only justification for the casting experiment.

Williams captures Viola's lostness, her sense of being trapped in an identity that leaves her no way to connect with others, better and more touchingly than most actresses could.

Bob Barrett is an adequate, if not show-stealing Malvolio, getting most of the laughs and some of the pathos, and Joe Flynn does more than most with the relatively simple role of Viola's twin brother.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Filter, Tricycle Theatre Autumn 2008; Spring 2010

This production from Filter runs out of steam near its end, but for at least three-quarters of its length it's a sprightly delight. Be prepared for a dying fall, and you'll find much to enjoy.

Filter is the small company that integrates music, electronics and other technology into their semi-staged performances you may have seen their Caucasian Chalk Circle at the National or their Water at the Lyric Hammersmith a couple of years ago. This version of Twelfth Night was originally part of the Royal Shakespeare Company's complete works season in 2006.

Visually, the production is unassuming. The stage looks like a rehearsal room, with musical instruments, microphones, props and chairs scattered about. Those not in a particular scene are likely to be providing the music or handling the other electronic effects.

Except for Oliver Dimsdale's Sir Toby, inexplicably in Elizabethan costume, the actors wear their street clothes Viola (Poppy Miller) creates her man's disguise by borrowing a jacket and hat from audience members.

(Quick reminder girl dresses as boy, is sent by her boss with love messages to his lady, who falls for the messenger. That one.)

The text has been cut intelligently to a fast-moving ninety minutes (The RSC routinely takes twice as long), keeping all the comedy and, nicely, much of the slightly sad romantic flavour as well, with the hopelessness of Olivia's love for Viola and Viola's for Orsino given due respect without interfering with the fun.

The high point of the evening is Sir Toby's midnight revelling. The musical setting to 'What Is Love' is infectious, and soon there is dancing in the aisles and a sharing of the pizza that gets delivered on cue.

Ferdy Roberts catches all of Malvolio's stuffy ridiculousness, making the letter scene (when he's conned into thinking Olivia loves him) a further delight.

The rest of the cast are also fine Jonathan Broadbent switching in a twinkling between a manly Orsino and a wimpy Aguecheek, Gemma Saunders doubling Maria and Feste with the aid of a clown's nose, and Syreeta Kumar anchoring things as a sympathetic Olivia.

And then what happens? You can almost watch director Sean Holmes and the cast running out of ideas.

As good as the music for Toby's song was, Come Away Death and The Rain It Raineth are lifeless. They haven't figured out how to stage the scene of Malvolio in prison, so just do it in the dark.

And in particular, they haven't found a clever, or even coherent way for the one actress to play both twins in the last act. It can be done I've seen it done but here anyone who did not know the play couldn't possibly figure out what's going on.

For those reasons, I couldn't recommend this as anyone's first Twelfth Night. But if you know the play, and are prepared for it to lose a lot of energy toward the end, there is fun to be had along the way.

Gerald Berkowitz

Wyndham's Theatre Winter 2008-2009

Shakespeare's Twelfth Night (the one about the girl who dresses as a boy, only to have a woman fall for her) is a deceptively difficult play to do right.

Its mix of romance, comedy, whimsy and pathos is a lot more fragile than you'd guess, and it always, always defeats the Royal Shakespeare Company, bringing out all that is ponderous in the house style.

Which makes Michael Grandage's production for the Donmar-in-the-West-End a special delight. Grandage has found the secret to making the play work, which is just to stay out of its way and not try to impose a concept on it or to gild the lily with extra funny stuff.

Yes, the production is in vaguely modern dress, and yes, there are a couple of harmlessly unnecessary bits of staging, like a dancing class for Orsino's all-male household or a scene set on the beach.

But there's no attempt to twist the play into being about homoeroticism or the rise of capitalism or colonial imperialism or the Iraq War or anything else.

Grandage and his uniformly excellent cast just (just!) use all their talents to serve the play, letting a far greater artist than any of them carry the evening.

And carry it he does. The play makes you laugh a lot, sigh a little and perhaps even think a bit. It flows smoothly from romance to character comedy to farce to melodrama and back, without a hitch.

I can remember isolated moments from other productions that were briefly funnier or more touching, but no other version that had such consistency and high quality throughout. And the key on just about every level is not getting in the way of the play.

As Viola, the one whose disguise not only attracts Olivia but keeps her from being able to declare her love for Orsino (who's in love with Olivia), Victoria Hamilton captures all the innocence and purity of the romantic heroine, along with an attractive youthfulness that makes it all, despite her frustrations, a bit of a girl's-own-adventure for her.

In too many productions Olivia is reduced to straightman and feed for the others, but Indira Varma finds all the humour in this prim puritan suddenly finding herself feeling randy.

It is Mark Bonnar who makes the sacrifice of being straightman by playing Orsino with no knowledge that he's in a comedy, thus generously letting everyone else shine around him.

The role of Malvolio, the stuffy steward who's made the butt of a complex practical joke, has traditionally been the purview of a serious classical actor on holiday, with a lot of the fun being watching such a figure let his acting hair down, even though that often means someone who is not a natural clown working too hard and too visibly at being funny.

Derek Jacobi has all the right serious credentials, but he also has a comic sensibility, and can find the gags without having to force them.

The result is a more restrained comic performance than some Malvolios offer, but a more coherent one Jacobi is certainly the first Malvolio I've seen who could make you laugh out loud but still exited the play with some dignity remaining.

Meanwhile, absurdly tall Guy Henry and moderately short Ron Cook turn Aguecheek and Toby Belch into a walking sight gag, and hardly have to work to be funny, the characters benefiting doubly by never descending from recognisable human frailties and follies into cartoons.

And while it is not true, as some may suspect, that Shakespeare's verbal comedy is always drearily unfunny, discretion may be the better part of valour, and Zubin Varla as Feste wisely zips through the puns and wordplay, letting the character be defined and carried by his several songs.

If you have seen Twelfth Night before, then, like me, you will probably have seen isolated moments done better than they're played here. But I am sure you will not have seen a production so of a piece at such a high level of entertainment.

And if you haven't seen it before, this is an ideal introduction.

Gerald Berkowitz

RSC, Duke of York's Theatre Winter 2009-2010

Those who don't demand that their comedy be laugh-a-minute, but can appreciate the creation of a world of warm, gentle humour with room for sweet sentiment and even pathos, will find much to take pleasure from in this Royal Shakespeare Company transfer from Stratford.

I have watched almost every scene in the play the one about the girl who dresses as a boy and is sent by her boss to woo the lady he loves, who falls for the messenger staged with more comic hilarity in one production or another over the years, but I have never seen one that is so much of a stylistic piece throughout and that is so infused with love for all its characters.

Almost from the start, we realise that nobody onstage is too grotesque or extreme to be liked, and that most of them feel an unstrained warmth toward each other.

Jo Stone-Fewings' Orsino may be lovesick and in love with love, but he's never ridiculous, and Nancy Carroll plays Viola as if she were Rosalind, more spunky and in control than victim of her disguise, so that her double quandary of falling for the employer who thinks she's a boy while Olivia is falling for her is one we're confident she'll navigate.

In the other house, Alexandra Gilbreath gives Olivia enough self-awareness that she's never more foolish than she'll allow herself, while playing her attraction to Viola as sincere and not absurd.

Indeed, warmth and an anchor in humanity characterise all of Olivia's household, as opening scenes make clear that Pamela Nomvete's Maria has real affection for Miltos Yerolemou's Feste, he unfeignedly enjoys the company of Richard McCabe's Toby, and so on.

Even Richard Wilson's Malvolio is introduced, not as a figure of absurd self-importance, but as an only-slightly-stuffy professional who takes his job seriously.

(This means that one of the problems that frequently makes this play fall apart in other productions the potential clash in tone between the light romance and the cruel practical joke played on Malvolio isn't a real issue here.

Because the comedy always has an anchor in reality, and because Malvolio doesn't really deserve his torment, his mistreatment is clearly presented as going-too-far, and the one character the play does lose sympathy for is Sir Toby, precisely because he violates the unspoken code of amiability that binds all the others.)

Much credit, then, to director Gregory Doran not only for having the courage to treat the play with gentle warmth rather than straining for laughs, but for guiding his cast toward creating and sustaining that sweet and happy tone.

Gerald Berkowitz

Cottesloe Theatre Winter-Spring 2011

The National Theatre's eightieth birthday gift to its former Artistic Director Peter Hall is this lovely small-scale production of one of Shakespeare's more enigmatic comedies.

Twelfth Night about the girl disguised as a boy, who falls in love with her boss, who sends her with love messages to the lady next door, who falls for the messenger can be played for light comedy or romantic sweetness, and Hall has chosen the latter.

Many of the opportunities for injecting big laughs are deliberately glossed over, and it is the softer and more romantic characters and moments that score most fully.

Rebecca Hall (daughter of...) plays Viola with a sharp intelligence. There's always somebody at home upstairs, watching herself and those around her, fully aware of the romantic trap she's gotten herself into with her disguise and bemused by it.

Amanda Drew's Olivia is never made to look foolish in her love for the girl/boy; we sympathise and wish a happy ending for her as much as we do for Viola.

Martin Csokas captures Orsino's self-dramatising sentimentality without becoming comic, the obvious fact that his character is a generation older than either of the women giving his love a nice poignancy.

Even the mild surprise of casting the veteran David Ryall as Feste gives the jester a quiet gravity that fits the production's tender and autumnal mood.

In the comic subplot Simon Paisley Day underplays Malvolio, and while we may miss some of the broad mugging and farce other actors have brought to the role, he doesn't warp the play or steal focus from the romance as many do.

Charles Edwards' sweetly dimwitted Sir Andrew is a more successful comic creation than Simon Callow's broader Sir Toby Belch.

Theatrical history may ultimately conclude that Peter Hall's greatest contribution was the revolution in Shakespearean verse speaking he began as founding director of the Royal Shakespeare Company a half-century ago, and it is certainly true that every line is absolutely clear without losing any of the poetic flourishes.

As I've suggested, you may well have seen funnier Twelfth Nights in the past, but not one that captures the play's warm celebration of love so fully.

Gerald Berkowitz

RSC, Roundhouse Summer 2012 and then Stratford

The Royal Shakespeare Company's current 'Shipwreck' season features an excellent Tempest, a disappointing Comedy of Errors, and David Farr's Twelfth Night, which lies somewhere in between.

It has some very good things in it, but not quite enough.

(Reminder: girl dresses as boy, falls in love with her boss, who sends her with love messages to the lady he loves, who falls for the messenger.)

Through the decades this seemingly simple light rom-com has been a jinx for the RSC, repeatedly bringing out the company's inclination toward ponderousness. And there are just too many dead stretches that you have to slog through to get to the good stuff here.

Particularly unfortunately, too many of the former involve the play's heroine.

Though she is an excellent actress, and though she has been dressed and wigged to look like Tintin, Emily Taaffe too rarely captures the irresistible gamin quality Viola must have, or the half-comic half-sad sense of the girl trapped by her own disguise, having to plead her beloved's case to another woman, and having to control her impulse to jump him while he treats her like a bloke.

This is particularly frustrating because all those qualities are there in the production, in Kirsty Bushell's lady-he-loves Olivia.

Bushell shows us Olivia's instant falling-in-lust, her awareness of her own absurdity, her wrestling and finally giving in and going for broke, and her rush of confused emotions when the object of her desires is exposed as a girl with a convenient twin brother.

It can only enrich and enhance the play to have an Olivia who brings all this to the play but it can only warp the play when the Viola doesn't top or even match her.

Elsewhere, Jonathan Slinger is a thoroughly satisfying Malvolio, a prissy bank manager type with erotic fantasies above his station.

Nicholas Day's Sir Toby mixes the Falstaffian expansiveness of a Simon Callow with the teddybear lovability of a Timothy Spall. Bruce MacKinnon is a standard-issue booby as Sir Andrew and Kevin McMonagle is a languid seen-it-all Feste.

The fact that the play only really comes alive when Kirsty Bushell, Jonathan Slinger or Nicholas Day is centre stage leaves us too much time and opportunity to wonder about some technical questions, like why the play is set in what appears to be a Tennessee Williams gone-to-seed Southern hotel, or why, if you're going to cast a Sebastian who is a foot taller than your Viola, you don't at least give him a similar wig, so we can pretend to believe no one can tell them apart.

Gerald Berkowitz

Apollo Theatre Winter 2012-2013

This delightful staging of one of Shakespeare's lightest comedies (Girl disguises as boy, is sent by her boss with love notes to his lady, who falls for the messenger) is a revival of a version first seen at Shakespeare's Globe ten years ago, its most distinctive element being an all-male cast and the presence of then-Artistic Director Mark Rylance in the secondary role of Olivia, the love-confused lady.

Revived at the Globe in 2012 and then restaged for the West End, it is a deserved hit.

Of course all-male Shakespeare isn't quite the novelty it was a decade ago, Edward Hall's Propeller Company making almost annual visits to London, but it still adds nice overtones.

For once, jokes based on the idea that the heroine Viola looks just like her twin brother actually work (The last time London saw this play, the Sebastian was a head taller than Viola), while the heft that Paul Chahidi brings to the maid Maria gives her an attractively matronly air.

Director Tim Carroll makes the gender imitation and general artifice central to the production from the start, as the audience enters to find the actors onstage, putting on makeup, costumes and wigs.

Mark Rylance is laced into his floor-length gown as he does loosening-up exercises and then practices the mincing walk that will make him seem to glide across the floor on wheels.

We get the point nicely everyone, not just the actor playing a girl disguised as a boy, is in costume and playing a role, so we might as well just sit back and enjoy it.

Certainly Mark Rylance repeatedly threatens to warp the play by making Olivia far more fun than Johnny Flynn's Viola (actually one of the weak links in the otherwise sprightly show, Flynn never really convincing as a girl or even as character rather than an actor reciting lines not very well).

Rylance finds all the humour in the serious woman suddenly overwhelmed by desire, and you may not notice that most of his laughs come from tacked-on shtick double-takes, pratfalls, babbling in confusion or embarrassment that are imposed on the moment rather than growing out of the character.

(I was actually more impressed by his few scenes of seriousness, when he found touching depths I hadn't seen other actresses bring out.)

Malvolio, the stuffy steward and butt of a practical joke, is traditionally the role of a slumming tragedian, and it is nice to see it in the hands of a real comedian. Stephen Fry doesn't really do much with the letter scene (in which he talks himself into believing Olivia loves him), though he doesn't get in its way, and he is hilarious in the yellow stockings scene (in which he tries to impress the lady).

Liam Brennan finds more depth and sympathy than I've ever encountered in the usually thankless role of Orsino, Colin Hurley and Roger Lloyd Pack are standard-issue Toby and Andrew, and Peter Hamilton Dyer's seedy and slightly sinister Feste adds some interesting colours.

Without question, a stronger Viola would have made this one of the great Twelfth Nights of all time, but with a colourless Viola as the hub around which all these other strong performances revolve, it's still pretty good.

Gerald Berkowitz

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