This was a Royal Shakespeare Company production, and not just any RSC production, but an RSC production directed by Gregory Doran. Doran is most recently famous for taking a huge risk in 2008 and casting Doctor Who‘s David Tennant in Hamlet, a move that apparently paid off in spades. I obviously wasn’t here to see it, and I haven’t yet gotten my hands on a copy of the DVD, but I’ve heard good things (also, Patrick Stewart as Claudius? Daaaaamn). Anyway, in addition to his Hamlet cred, in 2000-ish Doran put on a Macbeth that I think, despite its few faults, might be the closest thing to definitive we’ve got. So I have a lot of respect for (and expectations of) Gregory Doran.
It really saddens me, then, to say that his Twelfth Night is not that good.
Which isn’t to say it is bad, really. The word my professor used, and one that I think is most appropriate, is “patchy.” The play stopped and started, came and went, and ended up feeling generally uneven. Doran tried his hand at casting a TV actor in the meatiest role, this time famous (over here, anyway) grumpy old man Richard Wilson as the puritanical steward Malvolio. Malvolio, as it happens, is not even a main role, but 12N is one of those plays where the subplot is more famous than the actual plot; Malvolio is the character people care about, and putting Wilson in the role was meant to draw more scrutiny, speculation, and (most importantly) audience members than any other aspect of the production.
Needless to say this is what most of the reviews focus on; in earlier stagings, apparently, Wilson wasn’t impressive. This was his first turn on Shakespeare, but by the time I saw the play (it was very near the end of its run) I thought he was adequate. A little stiff and hollow, perhaps, but that is probably the best way to describe the whole production. During the first two acts, all I could say about it was that it was definitely Twelfth Night, with various actors playing various characters I know are in the play, all with the expected lavish RSC set design and high production values. Aside from that, it was lifeless.
Things picked up in acts 3-5, following the interval, where it seemed like the entire cast had ducked into their dressing rooms and snorted cocaine before coming back on. The actors weren’t any better, exactly — Viola/Cesario, Orsino, Olivia, and nearly everyone else was still pretty bland (Sebastian, by the bye, was bad and stayed bad) — but the smaller characters like Toby, Andrew, and Fabian seemed to really get into what they were doing, and everyone seemed more lively and happier to be on stage.
The two real bright spots of the production were Fabian, who is really a very small part but the actor had a good control of the character, and Feste, who was the only major character who seemed consistently on. They really emphasized his songs (we’re talking entire dance numbers), which was odd, considering the actor didn’t seem to be a very strong singer to begin with. But I give him points for getting out in front of people and singing, anyway, and I give him the benefit of a doubt since it’s cold season and he might have been losing his voice.
But aside from those two performances, the play was very flat. “Oh look,” the actors seemed to be saying, “we are putting on a Shakespeare play. What a thing to do!” (The Olivia was especially guilty of this — also, they made her character a slut, which has its fun moments but overall is unengaging, especially when the player is Very Obviously Acting, as this one was.)
The sole moment of real almost-brilliance, in my opinion, was the ending, where Feste sings his famous bit about the rain. Like the film version I just linked, it was played as a sort of montage of Feste singing while various scenes occurred on stage around him. The key difference was that the song was much slower and the scenes were not of journeys ending in lovers meeting, but snapshots of all the characters who ended up on the losing side of things — Antonio the gay sailor, robbed of his bland, uninteresting boycrush Sebastian by an insane cougar, and Andrew Aguecheek, robbed of his insane cougar by a bland, uninteresting boy, and (this was kind of neat) Toby and Maria, who pantomimed a very bitter and angry domestic dispute. Naturally this ended with Malvolio, the biggest loser in the play, and as Feste finished his song the two of them stood side by side on the stage, glaring at one another, the Fool and the Puritan — and the lights fell.
I actually got chills from that, man. It suggests, I believe, a very powerful reading of 12N that could make a very, very fine production.
It’s too bad that Gregory Doran didn’t, you know, use it.