Theatre: Dusty heat and magic

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The Independent Culture
WHEN TIM Supple directed the Young Vic company in his superb Comedy of Errors, he took the knockabout farce of mistaken identity and filled it with the horror that lurks at the heart of such confusion. With his new production of Twelfth Night, he plays a similar hand and wins again.

Not only does he have the same actors, but the production team are back too, notably Adrian Lee, whose wonderfully atmospheric music lights up the text, whipping up bewitching atmospheres out of thin air and turning Shakespeare's Illyria into a place of dusty heat and magic.

There is, however, nothing particularly mysterious about the production's success, which is the result of captivating clarity. Everything has been freshly thought through. Stereotypical characterisations have been banned. As Maria, Sandy McDade ditches the usual bawdy Elizabethan-style Joan Sims: efficient and lightfooted in black shift and slippers with her hair scraped back, she's as quick and lean as a question mark. Far from the traditional dandy, Andy Williams's Aguecheek is a broad, battled northern bloke capering about in a red kilt. Even more importantly, Supple encourages his actors to play everything to and through the audience which means we become party to the emotional depths.

On the night I saw it, even the rowdy adolescent schoolboys in the audience kept falling silent. Here, the word "ensemble" has true meaning and the stage relationships have real strength. When Sebastian finally lays eyes on his beloved sister he is initially terrified. You share his terror as the eerie music adds to his belief that she must be a ghost. We watch them staring at each other through a long silence as every emotion of bewilderment, loss and reconciliation is movingly played out before us.

The text is obsessed with jokes about sex and sexuality but Supple's cast never descend to demonstrating this with pelvic thrusts and there's none of the nudge-nudge school of cross-dressing. In a black turban and the glowing dress of a princeling, Thusitha Jayasundera's compelling Viola is rendered truly boyish. Yet, ironically, the one element missing is sex. We never truly feel Orsino's struggle with his infatuation, nor his about-face when the object of his affection is revealed to be a girl. Similarly, dressing Olivia in mourning makes textual sense and ups her status, but it prevents Sarah C Cameron from physically expressing her passion.

Robert Bowman's hilariously constipated Malvolio knows no such constraints. He has all the smug unctuousness of a particularly odious hotel manager, which makes his fall from grace all the funnier. When he discovers Olivia's supposed love, his deferential physicality explodes because he simply cannot contain his joy. His outburst of ecstasy is the evening's comic highpoint.

From love and loss to malice and revenge, there's so much pain in Twelfth Night that it's a miracle that it cuts the mustard as a comedy. But as this marvellous interpretation reveals, it is precisely that pain which underpins the play's comic spirit.

In rep (0171-928 6363)