Shakespeare's Twelfth Night is awash with romantic confusions caused by cross-dressing. Shipwrecked on a foreign shore and believing that her twin, Sebastian, has drowned, Viola disguises herself as a boy. Swiftly employed as a page, s/he is dispatched to woo Lady Olivia on Count Orsino's behalf, only for the former to fall for the go-between.
Transferring to Shaftesbury Avenue from Shakespeare's Globe, Tim Carroll's all-male production, in gorgeous Elizabethan costume, has compounded the Bard's deft muddling of identities with a bit of misjudged casting. Like a china doll, with chalk-white face and scarlet lips, Johnny Flynn's Viola is, in the main, stiff and expressionless. The lesser part of Sebastian is played by the strikingly similar-looking but far better actor Samuel Barnett. Why not swap them?
Cavils aside, this is a very enjoyable production. Barnett is vivacious, and pretty as a picture, with shoulder-length tresses. Meanwhile, Mark Rylance's Olivia whirs around her oak-panelled mansion like a clockwork automaton. Tightly laced into a jet black dress, like Viola, she's in mourning for a brother. Yet Rylance's comic timing and stylised physicality express in Olivia a craving for love which is both hilarious and sweet. She darts, as if propelled by a wound-up spring of desire, when Stephen Fry's Malvolio mentions that a youth is at her gates.
Carroll's emphasis is on laughs (as it is in Richard III, which is playing in rep, with Rylance as a clowny villain). Rylance risks overplaying his most endearing comic tics – hesitant stammering and embarrassed floundering after losses of cool – but these remain, nonetheless, irresistible.
Fry makes an affable enough Malvolio. Actually, too affable. Doing a laid-back star turn, he at least avoids excessive caricature as a pompous killjoy. Startlingly, it is the lady's maid, Maria, who steals the show, played by Paul Chahidi as a hefty wench with a quick wit and a genuine soft spot for Colin Hurley's droll Sir Toby.
Carroll also explores the bisexual tenderness of this play with delicate humour. Looking quietly surprised by his own feelings, Liam Brennan's Orsino lets his eye wander, in an extended double take, over Flynn's figure which – with his back to us, in wide-hipped breeches – looks like a boy and a woman rolled into one.
Given that the British establishment hardly needs any more sex scandals at present, the National Theatre's latest act of daring is to steam ahead with The Magistrate. This is a revival of Arthur Wing Pinero's 1885 play about a respected member of the judiciary, a 14-year-old boy and shocking improprieties.
But plot synopses can be deceptive. The Magistrate is, rest assured, a light farce. The big joke, which the audience is let in on, is that Joshua McGuire's Cis, despite being dressed like a little Lord Fauntleroy, is actually 19. His mother, Nancy Carroll's anxious Agatha, has lied about her age, and his. Hence, he appears to be outrageously precocious; boozing, and flirting, and dragging his naive stepfather – the hitherto unimpeachable judge, John Lithgow's Posket – into a ruinous night on the town.
Tim Sheader's production boasts skew-whiff chambers, spectacularly unfolding like pop-up cartoons. Everyone has vertical hair, like poodles who've chewed on a live wire, and the physical comedy, choreographed by Liam Steel, is zippy. Having a ball, the pint-sized McGuire is literally a bounder, leapfrogging the furniture, and Lithgow's long-legged Posket is wonderfully funny, staggering and slanting at insane angles. However, everyone's having to work flat out to keep the momentum up: Pinero's corking lines alternate with dull patches and a tiresome Gilbert and Sullivan-esque chorus line.
Finally, the Donmar Trafalgar season for fledging directors presents Aleksei Arbuzov's The Promise, staged by Alex Sims. This Russian three-hander from 1965 was a Soviet hit that gained rave reviews in London in 1967, when it starred Ian McKellen. But has it stood the test of time?
Reality doesn't live up to the characters' early dreams, they find. Lika (Joanna Vanderham) is a lone teenager, starving yet determined to survive the Nazis' siege of Leningrad, as frozen corpses fill the streets. She is holed up in a derelict apartment when Max Bennett's Marat stumbles in, saying it was his childhood home in happier days. They fall in love and join the Soviet war effort. After saving the life of Gwilym Lee's Leonidik, they find their domestic arrangements turning into a love triangle which, over decades, threatens to tear them apart.
Bennett's Marat ultimately argues – with hawk-like intensity – that, as survivors, they cannot now waste their lives by settling for second best. They must love whom they truly desire, look to a new dawn. Alas, in preceding scenes, Sims' actors have been deprived of directorial fine-tuning, belting through their speeches. If more breathing space were left between the lines of Penelope Skinner's new English version, The Promise might seem a knottier portrait of love under communism. Mildly disappointing, but with poignant moments.
'Twelfth Night' (0844-412 4658) to 9 Feb. 'The Magistrate' (020-7452 3000) to 10 Feb. 'The Promise' (0844-871 7632) to 8 Dec
Richard Eyre’s premiere of The Dark Earth and the Light Sky, at London’s Almeida (to 12 Jan) asks whether First World War poet Edward Thomas (Pip Carter) is less devoted to his wife than to Robert Frost. Rafe Spall and Sally Hawkins are poignant in Constellations, a love affair replayed in parallel universes, at London’s Duke of York’s (to 5 Jan).
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