First Night: Twelfth Night, The Cottesloe Theatre, London
Gift of a role: Rebecca Hall stars in her father's play to mark his 80th birthday
It's amusingly typical of this workaholic giant of the British theatre that Sir Peter Hall's idea of an 80th birthday treat is to be given the chance to direct his fourth production of Twelfth Night.
He mounted what was, by all accounts, a landmark interpretation in Stratford in 1958, some 24 years before his daughter Rebecca emerged from life's wings. Now starring as Viola in this latest version, she makes her overdue debut at the theatre her father, who had already created the Royal Shakespeare Company, ran between 1973 and 1988.
I would love to report that this anniversary Twelfth Night – Sir Peter's birthday was on 22 November – rises to its historic occasion. But I found it a bit of a let-down. Its virtues are fine verse-speaking, clarity and luxurious casting. Yet it is also sluggish and too decorously constrained for a comedy so driven by a mad, topsy-turvy epidemic of misdirected love.
And it feels perverse to present the production in the intimate Cottesloe Theatre on an large end-on stage where the spare design by Anthony Ward (mainly consisting of a shifting sail-like canopy and a row of rather naff, dinky toy houses) that leaves acres of dead space. In her long-haired Cavalier disguise as Cesario, the lovely Hall would bring out the bisexual in Oliver Cromwell. So it is a shame that she has been lumbered with the miscast New Zealander, Marton Csokas as Orsino. His portrayal of Shakespeare's languid self-indulgent hero is so listlessly affected and weirdly pronounced that you may suspect a tranquilised pantomime villain is putting on a parody of the role. The homoerotic frisson therefore feel fake when he and Viola shyly stroke hands while listening to Feste's rendition of "Come Away Death".
Rebecca Hall's intriguingly understated heroine retains throughout an amused, ironic reserve which lends a different kind of poignancy to the pain of having to express passion obliquely. But though the production fields a few nice re-interpretative touches – instead of practising a grotesque smile, for instance, Simon Paisley Day's uppish, sanctimonious Malvolio arrests what looks like a neuralgic spasm – some excellent actors (such as Amanda Drewe) here seem rather subdued by the plainness of the proceedings. Simon Callow is in his fruity booming, thinking-person's Brian Blessed mode as Sir Toby. You're grateful for his energetic relish, even if the ugly, exploitative side of this sponging drunk is downplayed. Charles Edwards gives the funniest performance of the evening. His Sir Andrew Aguecheek is a deliciously twitchy fop, his eyes swivelling insecurely as though he fears a trap-door might suddenly open.
But the great comic set-pieces – Malvolio's gulling and his display of the yellow cross-gartered stockings – fall flat.
The results are disappointing but one would not put it past the irrepressible, tireless Sir Peter to give us fifth and triumphant Twelfth Night before he retires to the great green room in the sky.
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