Theatre: Englishmen abroad can have fun

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The Independent Culture
VERY OCCASIONALLY, within seconds of the start of a show, one is filled with confidence that the director and company know exactly what they are about. So it is with Michael Grandage's Twelfth Night. The house darkens, there is a sea-surge and thunder, a tall, louvered door opens throwing light forward and Daniel Flynn's insomniac Orsino strides out to deliver his lover's complaint with a frustration directed equally towards Olivia, "the spirit of Love", and himself. The sea's turmoil evoked in that first speech is then immediately picked up in the succeeding scene as the drenched castaway Viola recovers herself in the arms of the Captain.

Grandage and his design team make us aware of the play's actual and metaphorical littoral throughout. The dark tempests of bereavement, passion, vindictiveness and ingratitude hover about the comedy, but much of it, notably Malvolio's gulling, takes place on a beach, vividly created with just a windbreak and riviera sunshine. Yet, save perhaps for the portentous thunder-clap which follows Malvolio's final vow of revenge, the imagery is deployed with the utmost delicacy.

The lightness of touch is founded in the company's comfort with the text. When everything is as verbally lucid as this there is no need of slapstick and desperate embellishment. For example, when Jeremy Clyde's Sir Toby - instantly recognisable as the kind of topped-up drunk who fails to anticipate the odd doorpost but is never completely newted - confronts Malvolio with "Art thou any more than a steward?", we hear feelingly how his casual aristocratic condescension cuts his inferior. Not that Malcolm Sinclair's magnificent, erect Malvolio is sympathetic, for he has ambition's compulsion to pass condescension on down. There is then no need to overdress his cross-gartered yellow stockings. They are there, but as a nearly plausible part of that forever beshorted, slightly military look of the well-ironed Englishman on a foreign beach. In his later torment, in prison, we never see more than his hands fluttering and beseeching through the bars, a moving Beckettian touch.

Escaped from the ocean, Viola finds herself amid passions, in Orsino's words, "hungry as the sea". Transformed quickly into "Cesario", Susannah Hitching has her bob upon these billows with wit and resource. Yet with Orsino, the irony of her suppressed love for his/her master could not be more poignant. Her mercurial bustle contrasts well with Hermione Gulliford's Olivia who is as elegant when prostrate with grief as, once hit by Cupid's dart, she is voraciously sexy.

This production manages all the play's liminal balances - between mirth and pain, love, infatuation and friendship, sexual ambiguity, restraint and excess - subtly and intelligently. Perhaps, as the light steadily leaves Ian Bartholomew's excellent Feste to sing of the wind and the rain, the darkness predominates. But it does not extinguish our recollection of earlier gaiety in as good an account of this play as I can recall.