In recent years, British-Asian cultural fusions have generated huge popular hits for the entertainment industry. Take the TV sketch show Goodness Gracious Me, the musical Bombay Dreams and the film Bend it Like Beckham. Now Shakespeare is being translated to the subcontinent in a new West End production of Twelfth Night, featuring stars from the aforementioned success stories.
Turning Illyria into India circa 1970, this co-production by Tara Arts is certainly refreshing, and its opening scenes are arresting. Shereen Martineau's Viola, dressed in a sari, stumbles out of a torrential rainstorm clutching a suitcase. Distraught about her lost twin brother and clearly perilously close to destitution, she finds herself in a scruffy back-street of peeling doors, with a tangle of telegraph wires overhead. She determines to survive in this city by disguising herself and running errands for the rich Orsino. Played by Raza Jaffrey (from Bombay Dreams), the Duke wears polo gear and acts as if he's received a private school education.
Martineau, who hitherto has only played small parts for the RSC, is worth her weight in gold. She speaks verse beautifully, with a gentle Indian accent and a subtle grasp of iambic pentameters' lyrical formality. She transforms effortlessly into a pretty boy with her mellifluous voice and sharply defined jaw-line, and she captures the passionate idealism of youth. Her "willow cabin" speech to Olivia has a wonderful natural intensity. Meanwhile, Jaffrey invests Orsino with febrile, bitter frustration as he stews over his unrequited love for Olivia. This gives some real edge to his threats of violence against both women in the final Act, especially when Viola is willing to sacrifice her life to her would-be husband.
This Indian version also works well when Olivia mourns her brother at a shrine adorned with garlands, and in the veiled ladies' scene where hints of caste barriers creep into Olivia's queries about the parentage of the attractive go-between. The happy ending is strongly questioned too by actor-turned-director Stephen Beresford. He leaves Olivia standing in deep shock, realising she's mis-arranged her own marriage. Unable to transfer her affection to Viola's brother, she weeps anew as Feste sings of the sorrows of wedlock.
Unfortunately, those are the highlights. The ensemble's acting is uneven and sluggishly paced, with much of the comedy falling flat. Playing Olivia, Neha Dubey (from the film Monsoon Wedding) is disappointingly self-conscious, delivering each line like something she prepared earlier.
As her major-domo Malvolio, Paul Bhattacharjee's sour-faced mannerisms are feeble. Kulvinder Ghir (from Goodness Gracious Me) starts more promisingly, playing Feste as a nomadic minstrel with his neck swathed in beads. He has a sharp eye and suppressed aggression. He gets several big laughs for imitating histrionic Bollywood ladies, but several of his ballads (composed by Sara Dhillon) are so dreary that many spectators sniggered while Jaffrey struggled to look moved to tears. Nice overall concept. Needs some more fine-tuning.
After a relatively ambitious rep season, the Peter Hall Company's residency in Bath is tailing off a shade disappointingly. The finale is a safe, quite polished but shallow production of Blithe Spirit that is scheduled to tour. Nöel Coward's haunted-husband comedy is also, of course, a minor classic, with intimations of psychological depth. The twice-married novelist Charles Condomine may have an overheated imagination; he likes his hard spirits and is accused of subconsciously hankering after his late first wife, Elvira. Such a morbid romantic addiction ought to be fascinating. However, one hardly comes away convinced by Coward's claim that an "almost psychic gift" enabled him to write Blithe Spirit in five days during the dark war years. What is, in fact, most psychologically interesting is how evasive the playwright seems, handling death and obsession with superficial jocularity.
If you want an evening of old-fashioned easy-viewing, Thea Sharrock's staging fits the bill just fine. Aden Gillett's Charles strikes elegant poses with Joanna Riding as second wife Ruth. Sheathed in satin, she holds her cigarette aloft as if it's an extra, snootily turned-up nose. The drawing-room set is also stuffed with plush accessories, and one cannot but relish the fireworks when Charles leaves his furious spook-spouses to trash the place. The marble pilasters crack, and sparks gush from the fussy wall-lights. Penelope Keith is also on lively form as the turban-wearing medium Madame Arcati: a great farcical mix of hocus-pocus, snappy pragmatism, and galumphing eagerness.
Still, one longs for the others to offer some glimpses of real mental and emotional disturbance. Gillett pulls a long face when he thinks he's going mad, but his suave veneer is hardly dented. One might blame Coward for creating such a thin character, but as the ectoplasmic Elvira, Amanda Drew's "little minx" act is peculiarly rigid. She slinks around but her wicked grin is so fixed you'd think she died of lockjaw.
By contrast, I thoroughly enjoyed the sheer physical fun of Australia's Circus Oz. An old clown shuffles round his dressing room, magically putting on full make-up in a millisecond, combing his balding tresses, and humming "I Did It My Way" - all hanging upside-down from his shoes, hair-raisingly high above the stage. A burly acrobat with phenomenal balance turns trick-bike riding into a jokey ballet, accompanied by the vibrant on-stage band. And the juggling and trapeze skills are often breathtaking. Some acts outstay their welcome, and the anti-war message tagged to the human cannonball routine is nonsensical. But the double-jointed contortionist is appallingly funny, squeezing himself through a stringless tennis racket with one elbow spinning like a propeller.
Finally, I stand corrected for an error I made in last week's column. Jonathan Harvey's Edinburgh Festival play, Taking Charlie, was not produced by Sam Mendes's company, Scamp Film and Theatre Ltd, but by a theatre outfit called Scamp. Sorry.
'Twelfth Night': Albery, London WC2 (0870 060 6621), booking to 30 October; 'Blithe Spirit': Theatre Royal, Bath (01225 448844), to 30 August, then touring the UK to 8 November; 'Circus Oz': Royal Festival Hall, London SE1 (0870 060 0777), to 5 SeptemberReuse content