THEATRE / Think before you act: Paul Taylor on the ESC's Twelfth Night at Richmond

Click to follow
WHEN Malvolio swears to be revenged on the whole pack of them, it's no empty or impotent vow in Michael Pennington's thoughtful new Twelfth Night for the English Shakespeare Company. Before Colin Farrell's Feste can even finish his final song, the three-piece-suited steward is striding purposefully through the theatre with a couple of henchmen and, once on stage, points out to them the radical changes he's clearly going to make to Olivia's estate. A putsch seems to have taken place and the glare he gives his old enemy, the clown, causes Feste to convert the song's last line, 'And we'll strive to please you every day', from a sop to the audience to a wheedling bid to serve this new master. Suddenly, the production propels us into the sort of world that Peter Hall's current All's Well at Stratford struggles to delineate, where Elizabethan jesters have become an endangered species through the implacable advance of Puritanism.

Prior to this sinister last-minute elevation, Timothy Davies' Malvolio provides the production with some of its best moments of comedy. He portrays the steward as an officious upstart and potentially manic control-freak, so much so that, were Basil Fawlty to blunder into the play (perhaps on the look out for cheap Illyrian waiters), you feel that there'd have to be more than just the one recognition-scene. This Malvolio is in such a trance of overweaning amatory ambition that, in the gulling episode, Derek Smith's Sir Toby is able to sneak right up behind him and thrust the forged letter through his legs. Indeed, an oblivious Malvolio continues to moon about with this missive stuck to his shoe, before he notices something amiss and gropes down gingerly, as if he had just trodden in dog mess.

Spiritedly pointing up the comedy (when he hears of Olivia's aversion to yellow, for example, James Hayes's Aguecheek is forced to adopt ridiculous poses in an effort to conceal a loud tie of the same colour), the production also catches well the play's undertow of melancholy.

In male disguise, Jenny Quayle's Viola is a most attractive mix of chipper, cocky youth and tamed, maturing girl. It's usually a puzzle that this heroine, though furnished some way before the end with strong evidence that her twin brother is alive and doubtless the cause of the sudden mad outbreak of mistaken identity in Illyria, does not take control of the situation, but prefers to bide her time passively. Quayle solves the problem by communicating a convincing emotional caution. It's as though the experiences she has undergone have dented her trust in her own judgement. Even the reunion with Sebastian has a guardedness about it that never switches into unmisgiving joy. When this Viola says to him 'If spirits can assume both form and suit / You come to fright us', it's an expression of sincere wariness, not just a conventional stage in the escalation towards rapturous recognition. Indeed, the embraces with both the brother and with Michael Mueller's Orsino are slow to come and tentative. Quayle's Viola seems realistically inhibited by the fact that she is still in drag, and can't let herself be secure about her future husband's attitude until he gets his first glimpse of her as a girl. This production may be low-budget-looking and is not high concept, but it shows all the virtues of having been closely pondered.

To 15 July at the Richmond Theatre (Box office: 081-940 0088).