Twelfth Night at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre

Reviewed by Kate Wilkinson
Sheffield Hallam University

Wilkinson, Kate. "Review of Twelfth Night at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre". Early Modern Literary Studies 11.1 (May, 2005) 16.1-6<URL: http://purl.oclc.org/emls/11-1/revkwtn.html>.

    Presented by the Royal Shakespeare Company at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire, England. 22nd April - 10th October, 2005. Directed by Michael Boyd. Designed by Tom Piper. Lightning by Vince Herbert. Music by John Woolf and Sianed Jones. Sound by Andrea J Cox. Movement by Liz Rankin. Aerial Movement by Gavin Marshall. Fights by Terry King. With Barnaby Kay (Orsino), Alan Morrissey (Curio), Kevin Trainor (Valentine and Priest this performance), Kananu Kirimi (Viola), Christopher Obi (Captain), Christopher Robert (Sir Toby Belch this performance), Meg Fraser (Maria), John Mackay (Sir Andrew Aguecheek), Forbes Masson (Feste), Aislín McGuckin (Olivia), Richard Cordery (Malvolio), Peter Bygott (Fabian), Neil McKinven (Antonio), Gurpreet Singh (Sebastian), Eke Chukwu (Sailor/Officer), Barrie Palmer (Orsino's man), Sally Tatum (Maid).

  1. The stage for Michael Boyd's new production of Twelfth Night at Stratford was a large circle of wooden boards, the backdrop initially a black cloth which rose after Viola's entrance to reveal a wall made from the same wooden boards with a door in the middle. This wall extended down the sides of the stage with three exit arches on each side. As the audience entered the stage was set up as a shabby music room: there was a straight-backed piano upstage right and various basic wooden chairs arranged with music stands. On closer inspection one saw various instruments positioned by the chairs: a cello, double bass, trumpet, cymbal, horn and saxophone, with a microphone positioned centrally. One wooden chair with arms was isolated by being set centre stage and brought forward of the rest. The sound of waves crashing played over this scene as the audience entered the auditorium. Into this came Orsino and his orchestra, dressed in modern clothes: the band in suits, Orsino in fashionable boho trousers and shirt. Orsino slouched in his throne chair while the others played, the attendants growing visibly weary at the mention of Olivia.
    Although a mostly bare production, in that it relied almost entirely on acting rather than stagecraft, this Twelfth Night had elements of the spectacular about it. As this first scene changed, the music stands and piano were quickly raised into the air while three ropes began to descend with a drowning Viola and Captain clinging to them. The lights, from bright white, turned blue as the characters floated around, literally landing in Illyria. This was so unexpected and clever that it received a long round of applause at the performance I attended. Viola, played by Kananu Kirimi, was a small thin girl wearing a floaty blue dress: she looked as though she was a figure of the sea she was saved from.

  2. Colour was significant to this production; blue was a theme for Viola and Sebastian, as they both wore powder blue throughout (Cesario and Sebastian both wore suits, Cesario's more fitted and like a woman's trouser suit than Sebastian's). This was a stark contrast to the browns, reds, purples and black that the other characters wore. At the conclusion in the reconciliation scene this had the effect of making Cesario and Sebastian stand out, especially as they stood downstage while the other ten characters watched from the edge of the circle upstage. Cesario and Sebastian were thus marked out as separate: different and special. The emphasis on browns and reds, and the natural materials used for the stage, gave the production an earthy atmosphere, also created by the use of flowers. These were present from the first scene, being brought back and forth between Orsino and Olivia throughout. Flowers also featured in the final scene as the wooden backdrop rose during the moment of recognition to reveal a meadow of brightly coloured flowers strewn with papers, creating a dreamlike quality.

  3. There was a fluidity to the relationships of the play, particularly seen in Orsino: a homosexual element was evident early on when his attendant commented to Cesario that the Duke was inconstant in his favours. The emphasis placed on "believe me" after a short pause suggested something sexual about the (male) attendant's relationship to Orsino. Most notably, Orsino's relationship with Cesario bordered on sexual as he moved to kiss Cesario during the "I am all the daughters of my father's house" speech. It was Cesario who pulled away and the awkwardness and embarrassment was almost tangible as Orsino enthused about Ceasrio's next trip to Olivia before leaving the stage.

  4. The gender of Viola was something that the audience was not encouraged to forget. Cesario's first entrance was played up with an exaggerated cowboy swagger which was never really played down and constantly reminded the audience (if it didn't raise suspicions in the characters) that this was a woman playing a man. Kirimi had a tendency to speak with her arms thrown out wide and shoulders back, perhaps to suggest that she was open and honest with nothing to hide, and showing a confidence and youthful assertiveness that I had not previously seen in the character. However, this created a character that I was never quite drawn into believing, and I found her speeches to be insincere. In a place where sexuality was so fluid, Viola was clearly heterosexual, viewing Olivia as a romantic opponent. "I would make me a cabin" was spoken with a cheerful and carefree rhythm, and some of the ambiguity and depth of the character was lost because of this. However, Aislín McGuckin's Olivia was clearly moved as her voice broke with emotion in response. McGuckin's Olivia was well performed as a strong, though tender, woman (especially so in her threats to, but also caretaking of, Toby) and she seemed to be wasted on both Cesario and Sebastian. Gurpreet Singh's Sebastian was more feminine than Viola. His main role seemed to be to highlight the strangeness of the land in which he had arrived.

  5. The low characters introduced a darker, though funny, side to the production during the second half. The plot against Malvolio encouraged great sympathy for the yellow jump-suited character, which had a basis in the manipulative plotting by a menacing Maria and the humiliation forced on him in the cell as he entered naked from the waist up with his arms and feet bound by rope.
    There was a sexual element to these characters also, most notably between Maria and Feste; the latter shared a serious and passionate kiss with Maria before the Sir Topaz scene, but was left in the cold as Maria chose Toby over the fool. Feste's final song was upbeat and jazzy but ended the production on a sad and uneasy note with an almost whispered final line, reminiscent of John Leguzimo's Toulouse in Baz Luhrmann's Moulin Rouge. This sadness had been gaining momentum throughout: it was evident, for instance, when the scene where Malvolio threatened to evict Toby started as a musical with verse sung in harmony by Toby, Aguecheek and Feste, but then very quickly became serious with threats angrily flying. Darker elements came to the fore, allowing the audience to see the bullying nature of the characters' pranks. The constant presence of the music stands, piano and boat in which Sebastian descended, hanging overhead, reminded the audience that this is a play about life turned disconcertingly topsy-turvy.

Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at M.Steggle@shu.ac.uk.

© 2005-, Matthew Steggle (Editor, EMLS).