Twelfth Night by the Royal Shakespeare Company; 15th November 2017; Stratford-upon-Avon.
RSC’s production of Shakespeare’s 17th century comedy serves to impress visually with its opulent scenography along with an experienced cast who engage their audience with ease.
Even before the start of an RSC performance, one cannot help but admire the architecture around them, from walking through the doors of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre to being directed to your seats by following the red curtain around the back of the house. Before the first line was uttered, I noted the thrust stage, likewise to The Globe, with four tiers of seating. There were also two walkways onto the stage to serve as wings; the audience in the front rows had to use them to get to their seats. If there was one downside before the performance commenced, it was having to stand up to allow fellow spectators to sidestep along the row. Despite the lack of legroom (not really), I’m fond of auditorium designs like the Royal Shakespeare which are compact and built for height (of the proscenium arch and seating) rather than width.
This version of the play may have been ‘traditional’ in its style, but it individualised itself in terms of time period. Although it used the same premise as the original text – Viola being shipwrecked and mourning the supposed death of her drowned brother – it used settings and characters such as a railway station with police constables. This had connotations of Victorian England rather than the coast of Illyria several centuries ago. However, the ‘fool’, Feste and two siblings were of eastern descent, which ticked the box for diversity in the cast. There are of course moments in the play that the audience can guarantee will happen and hopefully, provoke laughter. Markedly, the entrance of Adrian Edmondson as Malvolio in cross garters and yellow stockings was one of many. He took advantage of audience applause to launch into a reprise of a musical interlude accompanied by a sitar and foolish prancing as the other characters watched on in disbelief. In essence, dramatic irony is a device that prevails through many if not all of the national bard’s comedies, and even if some spectators were unfamiliar with the Twelfth Night story, they easily followed the comedy of mistaken identity that operated within the ‘love triangle’ between Viola/Cesario, Olivia and Duke Orsino.
Being a five-act play (two hours and forty minutes including an interval), the text was in no way manipulated, and so actors at times would be deliverers of long sections of text, be it a soliloquy, aside or prose dialogue. It can be easy to focus only on the articulation of words and have less concern for use of space on what was a stage with plenty of breadth. In particular, Lady Olivia, played by Kara Tointon, commanded the space well with her assured gait whilst occasionally covered with a black veil. She was involved in several costume changes which may have reflected her character development from initially being sombre and indifferent to deeply romantic. Other examples came from the two pompous ‘oafs’ that are her uncle, Sir Toby Belch, and his hapless friend, Sir Andrew Aguecheek. From dinner jackets they donned whilst dancing during the early hours, to inappropriate padded armour and long chequered stockings, they conspired with both Fabia and Maria to humiliate and taunt the butler Malvolio. The stage designers gave more scope for comedy through set pieces such as headless statues, which the plotters feigned whilst eavesdropping on their ill-treated victim. Other aesthetic touches included a scattering of autumn leaves around the stage’s periphery, apt for the time of year. What indicated the company’s spending of a sizeable budget was the set changes. Imposing structures of rostra, two examples being a greenhouse dome and fireplace, were moved on wheels from the rear of the stage and made these transitions seamless.
It was clear what we were seeing stemmed from the style of realism. Although Shakespeare wrote in what can be called ‘classical naturalism’, moments such as the eavesdropping scene, as well as bursts of song from Feste for instance, were not typical of the ‘real world’ in which we live. Certain interludes, one being music, contained gradual changes of lighting state. During the interval, I noted that profile and par can lights were used from above, and blue, orange and yellow gels were common. This helped enhance the atmosphere of grandeur in prominent locations like Orsino’s oriental palace and Olivia’s botanical garden. There was even a follow spotlight directed at Feste during his musical number, to really break down the illusion of the world being presented to the audience. Sound wise, all cues were recorded – I can hardly expect for a live orchestra to be fitted in – and the music for this was predominantly brass with an uplifting, merry tone. This was suitable for the hilarity of each scene, despite not all characters being satisfied come the end. The final tableau or image had Sebastian reach out with both hands to Olivia as both couples stood opposite one another before a slow blackout. Prior to this, Malvolio had exited in bitter rage after being locked in a crooked, derelict cabin and taunted by his enemies. All this made the ending ambiguous, but perhaps Shakespeare and the director Christopher Luscombe simply conveyed here the usual truth that the young ultimately find love while the old and over-ambitious fall short.
A striking, entertaining and triumphant first production to have viewed at the RSC. It will be interesting to experience a tragedy at the other end of the spectrum, that is bound to be laden with pathos and blood. As far as Twelfth Night is concerned though, a fitting way to build up to the holiday season.