Twelfth night, Donmar Warehouse, London

Harrowing hilarity

He looks as though his copious blubber has been constrained from birth in a wing collar and buttoned-up pinstripe suit and that he must have emerged from the womb with that self-important beard and punctilious moustache. His gait is an effeminately officious cross between a march and a scamper; his tone is a prissily sibilant sneer; and he is forever consulting his watch with righteous impatience. At night, his locks are lovingly protected by a lady's hairnet.

And yet, Simon Russell Beale's magnificent Malvolio, the killjoy Puritan steward, is by no means a straightforward figure of fun in this deeply diverting Twelfth Night, directed by Sam Mendes in a spare, warmly candle-lit staging, with a cast in costumes that range from the Edwardian era to the Thirties. No one is better than Russell Beale at showing you the terrible, tragic intensity of people who haplessly fall short of tragedy, nor at suggesting a core of massively affronted dignity in the midst of preposterous mayhem.

This Twelfth Night now joins in rep, with the same crack ensemble, Mendes's acclaimed production of Uncle Vanya. Both are plays of bruised illusions, unrequited love and frustratingly misdirected sexual desire. They have comparably shifting, precarious moods, the comedy shot through with melancholy. Twelfth Night has been described as the most Chekhovian of Shakespeare's comedies. Thanks to Russell Beale, who performs both roles, and to Mendes's acute direction, Malvolio here accrues a depth of abused humanity that bears comparison with that of Vanya, the counterpart steward in the Chekhov.

It's a brilliant touch that, in this production of Twelfth Night, the scene where Malvolio is gulled with the forged letter takes place not in the garden but in his bedroom, with the tricksters behind a screen, watching him as he reclines lost in goggle-eyed, pitifully grandiose fantasies on his barren single bed. The effect of the letter is brilliantly funny, but the setting makes the episode feel like a nasty violation of privacy. And it's painful to watch the quiet, fixated sincerity with which this Malvolio slumps to his knees and addresses the apparition of Olivia (the amusingly sexy Helen McCrory) in the silver picture frame at the back. And though Russell Beale is riotous as a born-again roué in the yellow cross-gartered stocking scene, the sheer force of his need and the epic scale of his deluded confidence give a harrowing edge to the hilarity.

The empty picture frame acts as a threshold and a kind of symbolic space where characters appear who are in the thoughts of others. Emily Watson's attractively understated Viola enters through this border on her arrival in Illyria. And when Antonio's confusion gives her hope that her twin brother has survived, Sebastian suddenly materialises within it behind her. Watson's half-smile and gently closed eyes, as she muses on this miraculous possibility, are extremely touching. And during the romantic reunions at the end, the frame keeps pointedly within our view the figure of the straitjacketed and blindfolded Malvolio, a spectacle which adds a modifying note of rebuke to the oblivious celebrations.

The production perhaps feels a little land-locked for a play of romantic redemption where "Tempests are kind, and salt waves fresh in love!", but it is full of imaginative strokes and details that make you ponder the play anew. There's a lovely moment, for example, when Anthony O'Donnell's podgy, tatterdemalion little Feste sings the line "I am slain by a fair cruel maid" and shrewdly looks at Viola in a way that suggests he has seen through her male disguise. Like Uncle Vanya, this Twelfth Night is booked solid, apart from a few tickets that can be queued for each day. If that fails, it would be well worth trying to tunnel your way in.

To 30 November (020-7369 1732). A version of this review appeared in later editions of Wednesday's paper

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Thicke's video for 'Blurred Lines' has been criticised for condoning rape

Robin Thicke admits he didn't write 'Blurred Lines'

music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Damon as Jason Bourne in The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

Review: Cilla, ITV TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars with Cillian Murphy in Peaky Blinders II

TV
Arts and Entertainment

art
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West is on his 'Yeezus' tour at the moment

Music
Arts and Entertainment
Rob James-Collier, who plays under-butler Thomas Barrow, admitted to suffering sleepless nights over the Series 5 script

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence star in new film 'Serena'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Some might argue that a fleeting moment in the actor’s scintillating, silver-tongued company is worth every penny.

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth stars as master magician Stanley Crawford in Woody Allen's 'Magic in the Moonlight'

film
Arts and Entertainment
U2 have released Songs of Innocence in partnership with Apple

musicBand have offered new record for free on iTunes
Arts and Entertainment
Brad Pitt stars in David Ayer's World War II drama Fury

film
Arts and Entertainment
Top hat: Pharrell Williams

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum star as undercover cops in 22 Jump Street

film
Arts and Entertainment
David Bowie is back with fresh music after last year's hit album The Next Day

music
Arts and Entertainment
Keith Richards is publishing 'Gus and Me: The Story of My Granddad and My First Guitar', a children's book about his introduction to music

music
Arts and Entertainment
Calvin Harris has generated £4m in royalties from the music platform

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jenna Coleman stars as the Time Lord's companion Clara in Doctor Who

TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    The Imitation Game, film review
    England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

    England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

    Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week