A decent Twelfth Night isn't as easy to come by as you might think. But, as Andrew Hilton's production shows, it's not that hard to create. Just get some nice-looking actors who know what they're doing, and let them do it, without setting the play in a spaceship or Oscar Wilde's back bedroom. The result is a highly engaging show that will please both those who have seen the play many times before, as well as those who are new to it.
With seats on all four sides of the square playing area, the set no more than a table, some chairs, and a doughnut-shaped hedge for Malvolio's tormentors to hide in, ambience is provided only by the Elizabethan dress and the company's natural, vigorous manner of speaking the verse. (The ability to combine this with a beautiful way of speaking it tends, however, to be confined to the older actors.)
Hilton's happiest idea is to integrate Feste so closely into Olivia's retinue that first-timers who don't listen carefully may not realise he is a fool. A great relief from all those fools with funny voices, wigs and noses, Jonathan Nibbs is one you could imagine taking to your club, a soberly dressed fellow with a gentle, melancholy air. Nibbs also sings mournfully, his poignant music providing just enough darkness to counterbalance the play's giddy sweetness.
Lucy Black's Olivia and Mark Puddle's Sebastian make a charming couple, she throwing off her mourning for her brother with such speed and gaiety as to make it clear that she has worn it so long to discourage the advances of Orsino. As her rejected suitor, Tom Espiner, his face framed in fussy ringlets, is a bit too languid, Esther Ruth Elliott's Viola too tentative. The similarity might explain their attraction to one another, except that the languid men I've known tend to go for bossy girls – I'd like to see Elliott, whose face has a permanently apologetic expression, in the role of a sweet, bashful little bitch.
Roland Oliver is almost too genial and convivial a Toby Belch – one wonders why Olivia would be annoyed at his company. But his charm makes him a perfect match for Zoë Aldrich's Maria, the housekeeper who usually has to conquer her distaste for Sir Toby to accept a marriage proposal that will improve her status. Still, Aldrich is so jolly, and has such a cuddly quality, that one still feels the knight is getting the better of the bargain.
But the play, however, belongs to John Mackay's Andrew Aguecheek, dressed as as carefully as a lace-topped table in a show window but with hair that looks as if he's been dragged through a hedge forwards. This goofy suitor seems to have spent a long time studying books on gallantry, but to have practised it, like Woody Allen with his sex manuals, alone at home. Getting the romantic rituals nearly right, making a grand exit only to bump into a column, twigging a joke much later than the audience, and incredulous when he does, this gloriously dim knight is the true fool, and the soul, of this delightful show.
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