From the moment Orsino asks if music be the food of love, it is pretty clear that director Simon Godwin wants this Twelfth Night to be unlike any you have seen before.
Usually, the Duke is lounging in his court as he vents an obsession that, if circumstances were different, would have resulted in his arrest for stalking the uninterested Olivia. But in this version he is doorstepping her glass mansion having driven up in a vintage sports car. And so period and place is set.
This Illyria is not the place of ancient antiquity in which Shakespeare set his comedy, but a 21st-century state that feels oddly like nowhere in particular. If stylistically it all feels rather unspecific, just wait for the ingredients of this production to cohere. Once they do, they make a delicious and enriching whole.
Central to Soutra Gilmour’s design is a giant pyramid — not solid, like the ones in Egypt, but partitioned so that, as it revolves, scenes glide into and out of view like horses on a carousel. And central to a host of wonderful performances is Tamsin Greig’s utterly deadpan Malvolia. This is the latest recent example of a major production switching the gender of a traditionally male Shakespearean character, a thing now so established it’s hardly worth mentioning, especially in a play whose barmy plot pivots on a female twin pretending to be male.
But as Olivia’s party-pooping steward, Greig is priceless. With her cheerless visage framed by a sphinx-like black bob, her Malvolia flashes admonishing glares at the audience if she detects unseemly behaviour from that direction. There is just enough malice to enjoy her humiliation, while just enough humanity to be appalled by it.
Tamara Lawrence’s Viola is admirably underplayed, though in another gender-swap Doon Mackichan’s as Olivia’s fool Feste is under-defined and underpowered, more party animal than subversive observer. Both are upstaged by the sheer star wattage of their fellow cast members: Tim McMullen’s havoc-wreaking Toby Belch; Daniel Rigby’s one-man Dumb and Dumber — aka Andrew Aguecheek; and Phoebe Fox’s countess Olivia who should be in mourning for her brother but is constantly conflicted by the formality of her status and the urge to live life to the full. Ultimately this production helps you do just that.
After Benedict Cumberbatch’s version, which saw a regressive Prince of Denmark find solace in his boys’ toys, comes another Sherlock star’s interpretation.
Andrew (Moriarty) Scott’s is a very modern Hamlet. And not just because Robert Icke’s production sets the play among sleek Danish furniture, smoked-glass doors and in front of an array of CCTV screens on which the ghost of Hamlet’s murdered father appears like a lost security guard. But because Scott’s prince is of the generation that outwardly displays every mood and emotion.
Always on the verge of a tantrum, his eruptions come at ear-splitting volume. And for much of this near four-hour, two-interval production, it is easy to sympathise with Claudius’s complaint that his nephew’s ostentatious emoting comes across as somewhat self-indulgent.
But this is a performance that deepens with nuance. The “To be…” speech, which Scott’s Hamlet begins from the stalls, is a moment of such intimacy I barely breathed through it for fear of breaking the spell.
Yet, despite displaying a complete spectrum of his emotions, Scott never quite moves yours as much you’d hope. His Hamlet is hard to like. There is wit, but not much charm. And when he is with David Rintoul’s manful ghost, it’s hard to imagine a loving bond with this old-school dad that explains the all-encompassing grief of the son. Harder, at least, than say between Peter Wright’s Alzheimers-suffering Polonius and his daughter Ophelia, a role for which Jessica Brown Findlay generates a sense of abject loss that is as deep as Hamlet’s only in a fraction of the stage time.
Still, there are some wonderful moments of re-imagination: the romantic history between Hamlet and Amaka Okafor’s female Guildenstern; and Claudius’s confession, which is normally directed to God, is here offered to a gun-toting Hamlet. As his mum, Juliet Stevenson is also on terrific form. Her transition from loyalty towards her new husband, to enmity as she realises his treachery, is superbly judged.
So there is much here that is well worth watching. But I’d say we’re still waiting for a modern Hamlet that lives up to the hopes of contemporary audiences.
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