Twelfth Night, Dundee Rep, Dundee
Thursday 18 September 2003
If you can drag your eyes from the man slipping on a garish pair of yellow stockings on Dundee Rep's poster for their new Twelfth Night, you might be interested to discover that the production is sponsored by the Al-Maktoum Institute for Arabic and Islamic studies in Dundee. Not what one might expect to find, but a sign that the Rep's cross-cultural British Council-funded trip to Iran earlier this year was not without result.
Does this first production under the new artistic directorship of the Rep stand up to the success of the Iranian Winter's Tale? After a spate of alternative versions, one might expect the artistic director Dominic Hill to eschew the traditional approach. But he plays it safe with a slick, sophisticated comedy, reaching out only tentatively into darker corners.
A timeless claustrophobia is created by the faded elegance of Tom Piper's stunning set, the outside-inside room decked out like a Vettriano beach in a Dali dream. Two serving dishes surreally resemble breasts. A man lies washed up on the time-worn parquet. A woman sits on a chair part-submerged in a pile of sand. Another man plays the piano, which turns out to be playing itself. It's a snapshot of mournful introspection.
But from beneath this dust-sheet of sadness erupts the comedy, quite literally in the case of John Bett's Sir Toby Belch, who drunkenly stumbles about in joyous mastery of Shakespeare's verse. In spite of a tendency to resort to familiar comic devices to get audience laughs, there are inspired moments, such as when Belch and his co-conspirators tiptoe-dance a hushed drunken Gay Gordon.
But the promising juxtaposition of real and surreal is muddied by some uninspired delivery and a lack of chemistry between the main characters. A beautiful melancholic soundtrack highlights a poignancy sought, but not always achieved, on stage. It is an unanchored production, drifting between tradition and reinterpretation but plumping for neither.
Where it is on firmer ground is in portraying the devastating fallout of the game of love. Love is for real in Hill's Illyria. For every character who finds happiness, another is hurt, all too physically. Orsino slumps in a wheelchair, literally lovesick: "If ever thou shalt love, In the sweet pangs of it remember me," says Tom McGovern's Duke morbidly to Viola/Cesario, imbuing the words with a rare comedy. Soon Malvolio is locked up under the stage, victimised for daring to dream of love above his station. In the final scenes, love's losers stand by, beaten and bloody, while their luckier counterparts rejoice, but one gets the sense that it's an empty celebration.
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