REVIEW: Twelfth Night at the RSC

Adrian Edmondson in front as Malvoli, with, from left, Michael Cochrane, Sarah Twomey, and John Hodgkinson as Sir Andrew Aguecheek, Fabia and Sir Toby Belch.

Gill Sutherland reviews Twelfth Night which runs at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre until 24th February

Hallelujah, Rome is conquered, Christmas is here and we’ve been teleported by the magic of theatre to Wildean England, with lashings of Victoriana and a dash of festive fizz.

Twelfth Night has sat on the RSC programme horizon through some rather heavy-going Rome season shenanigans, as eagerly awaited as a wrapped mystery gift under the Christmas tree. And now the moment has come: we dementedly rip off the wrapping paper to reveal… a precious thing indeed, albeit one that occasionally reminds you of one of your Granny’s homemade cardigans.

This production always promised big bells: it’s directed by Christopher Luscombe who proved he could bring the figgy pudding with his dazzling Love’s Labour’s Lost and Won three winters ago; he’s joined by designer on those productions, Simon Higlett, who brings much sumptuous design swagger.

It looks immensely great, like a blockbuster Merchant Ivory number: with huge period backdrops impressively denoting Orsino’s city pad — now an artist’s lair with hookah pipes and a Noel Coward-type on piano — and Olivia’s Chekhovian country house; there’s even a bustling train station, replete with steam whistles. Add the great orchestral score and it all feels filmic and satisfyingly epic.

The big names on the bill don’t disappoint. Former soap actress Kara Tointon as Olivia morphs from grouchy Queen Victoria to a Downton-type babe, and is mesmerisingly watchable in the process. Playing her arrogant smarmy servant is Adrian Edmondson — who’s been part of Brit alt-culture since playing Vyvyan in The Young Ones in the early 1980s. He is a compelling and complex Malvolio, offering musical hall tunes and jigs, and conjuring a dash more pity than is usual.

The comic subplot with Sir Toby Belch and Sir Andrew Aguecheek (both John Hodgkinson and Michael Cochrane are hilarious) is brilliantly done.

In the production twins Viola and Sebastian are played by Dinita Gohil and Esh Alladi (both great, she in particular is blinding); which gives the Victorian colonialism an interesting twist… The two are outsiders and objects of desire; so much so that Orsino can’t resist giving Viola-disguised-as-Cesario a snog, which muddles the already muddled love quadrangle scenario further. And by the end Olivia, instead of being content with Sebastian (eg. the ‘appropriately’ sexed replacement twin to Cesario) appears to still have the hots for Viola. So instead of resolution we are left with a knotty confusion, as if Granny’s knitting has been visited by some playful kittens. Whatever, it’s a ton of fun, embrace the unruliness that is Twelfth Night and put the bloody cardigan on!