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Theatre Review: Strive to please another day

Shakespeare's `Twelfth Night' RSC, Stratford-upon-Avon
There's one indisputably positive thing you can say about Adrian Noble's new production of Twelfth Night. It's a damn sight better than the last outing the RSC gave this much loved but tonally tricky comedy. Ian Judge, a couple of years ago, equipped the play with a dinky Stratford skyline and a tourist-pleasing middle-class mentality to match. You got the feeling you'd fallen asleep and woken up in Chichester.

Noble's production is a much more mixed bag. There are performances here (notably Philip Voss's magnificent Malvolio) that do carry you some way inside the emotional complexity of this perpetual mood-swing of a piece. And there are ideas, or rather "ideas", that seem like the kind of novelties designed to appeal to buffs who have somehow managed to become bored with this inexhaustibly great play or to people whose capacity to appreciate its subtle shadings is being needlessly under-estimated (and I include here children seeing it for the first time).

So, our first glimpse of Helen Schlesinger's shipwrecked Viola is not as the usual shivering piece of human flotsam in a blanket on a beach but as an emergency case on a drip being raced into a 20th-century hospital. It certainly gives you a little thrill to hear those famous first words "What country, friends, is this?" as the semi-delirious query of someone surfacing, with a rush, from unconsciousness. But our whole sense of the vulnerability of Viola's position and of her status as a heroine from romance literature is blunted by first seeing her within this efficient support-network.

For the most part, the production outlines the play in broad, bright, cartoony crayon. Take, for example, the truly gargantuan fridge of David Calder's nicely judged depressive drunkard of a Sir Toby and the excellent John Quayle's pathetically superannuated Sir Andrew, a lantern-jawed chinless wonder, all blazer and grinning bashfulness. It's a good joke that this fridge is so ludicrously well stocked, but could any kitchen item plundered by this pair of self-indulgent emotional derelicts really be quite so spotless and ordered? There is, characteristically, something far too clean and "feel-good" about this visual gag, when it could be adapted to illustrate the malodorous chaos of Sir Toby's world.

It's a neat stroke, though, that Voss's splendid Malvolio only discovers the faked letter when he treads on it and the seal sticks to his shoe like dog dirt because it's absolutely in character that such a sneering, nose-in-the-air type should walk blindly into trouble. There's a wonderful cuff-adjusting prissiness about this Malvolio: you feel he would take to the departmental floor of Grace Brothers (in Are You Being Served?) like a duck to water.

Yet, despite a highly intelligent would-be rocker of a Feste from Stephen Boxer, there are whole drifts of delicacy and melancholy in the play that are under-communicated here. The staging is fetching enough, though I could have done without the all-male shower scene. You just don't get the feeling that anyone at the RSC had a desperate creative desire to put this masterpiece on again.

Paul Taylor