Twelfth Night – Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon

Writer: William Shakespeare

Director: Christopher Luscombe

Reviewer: John Kennedy

Some thirty years ago an ensemble of disparate student stereotypes,The Young Ones,exploded from our TV sit-com screens – often quite literally. When Adrian Edmondson’s anarcho-Punk, Vivyan, let loose his signature pet hamster comic-strip chaotic schtick mayhem ensued.

Twelfth Night, the twelfth day of Christmas marks the Epiphany, the arrival of the Magi. Tonight’sTwelfth Nightcelebrates the epiphanic arrival of Edmondson as RSC journeyman actor bristling with comic panache and subtle menace. He brings the gold, the Frankenstein and the allure.

His Malvolio struts with sepulchral gravitas. Scrooge-withered of gait and parchment skinned, there are suggestions of Gormenghast’s Mr Fley. Vulture-like, he chastises Olivia’s (Kara Tointon) palace servants. His less than subtle leery aspirations for her affections, way above his station and below any decency, rightly feed subversion in the ranks.

Here Director, Christopher Luscombe, is presented with a delicious dilemma. Malvolio is ripe for ridicule and there’s every precedent justifying bear-pit belittlement. But he knows his audience hold Edmondson in great affection – and this isn’t Game Of Thrones after all. Yes, Malvolio makes a monumental fool of himself whilst reading the forged letter. There’s a deal of garden-arbour-sculpture dangling private parts, and tweaked-breasts-comedy pressed in to service as his tricksters guffaw at and behind his pantomime of impending priapic thrusting ‘greatness’.

But here Edmundson transforms from fossilised jerk into fissile jigging jester with Vaudeville abandon. The knowing tells, the conspiratorial winks explode into a wild indulgence of music hall song and dance. He plays it for all it’s worth. Never has a man been so happy. From bitter Malvolio to a better Benvolio – for a while, at least.

Simon Higlett’s design concept draws on stylised 19th Century fin de siecle Decadence and Aestheticism – and then some. The luscious Art Nouveau railway station booking-lounge alone is a brief encounter to be relished.

Orsino’s (Nicholas Bishop) swirling candle-lit drenched, incense soaked Byzantine/Arabesque court ripples with giddy, chaise-longue louche young men with too much time on their hands. His faux portrait painter aesthete ennui ponders where those hands and time might better be employed. This all serves him well but he is rather confused as to which way his inclinations lie: something deliciously tickled with during the Viola/Sebastian reveal given that the woman he affects to adore, who doesn’t love him, is about to fall in love with the woman dressed as a man whom he has already become obsessed with. (Shakespeare’s never been given due credit forBlackadderand Bob.)

Everything resolves giddily and delightfully. Malvolio, though released and begged of for forgiveness by a mortified Olivia, is sworn to revenge. Director, Christopher Luscombe, lets that hang suggestively in the hookah-clouded air as the cast celebrate a closing roundelay. One of Shakespeare’s ‘meringue’ plays – its triumph of form over substance makes it all the more a guilty pleasure and one of his most popular. This production exploits that with impeccable relish and celebratory affection. Utterly recommended.

Runs until 24 February 2018 | Image: Manuel Harlan (c) The RSC

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