Sunday 16 January 2011

Review: Twelfth Night (National Theatre)

Of the many ways there are to celebrate your 80th birthday, directing a Shakespeare play at the National Theatre might not seem to be one of the most obvious. Unless you happen to be Sir Peter Hall, that is. Returning for the first time in years to the theatre that he used to run, the indefatigable Hall marked his 80th by beginning rehearsals for a production of Twelfth Night starring his daughter Rebecca as Viola at the NT’s Cottesloe. The production has been much anticipated and sold out almost immediately. I’d practically given up hope of seeing it, but thanks to the benevolence of a certain good friend and very occasional theatre-goer I ended up at the fifth preview of the play last night. And, well… call it the curse of high expectations (or what you will) but Hall’s production ended up being rather disappointing. It’s the kind of evening that you hope will be special, unique, revelatory. You want this most lyrical and exquisite of Shakespeare’s comedies to transport you, to be charming and crazy and magical. Unfortunately, that didn’t quite happen last night. “Bland” and “mediocre” would be closer to the mark.

Hall’s traditional approach to classic texts can sometimes pay dividends: his sublime Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Rose was one of my favourite productions of last year. Here, though, he seems to straightjacket the play far more than he liberates it. Part of the production’s appeal is the chance that it gives to see a Shakespeare play in the tiny Cottesloe, an auditorium which, under Nicholas Hytner’s tenure, has focused exclusively on new writing thus far. But while Anthony Ward's uncluttered set allows for some fine intimate moments, a lot of the action takes place on a wide stage in which too little seems to be happening. Such sparsity in staging Shakespeare can be wonderfully effective: it certainly proved so in Sam Mendes’s gorgeous production of Twelfth Night at the Donmar back in 2002. Here, though, you can spend a lot of time staring at dead space, and wondering why, in a couple of key scenes, Hall doesn’t seem so much to have directed the play as to have placed it under sedation.

It’s a shame because all the elements would appear to be in place, not least an excellent cast. In truth, though, the actors also have mixed success. As Viola, Rebecca Hall has some lovely affecting moments; her best scenes convey steeliness and wry humour and she gives a wonderful concentrated stillness to Viola’s great speech about women’s capacity to love. But Hall’s is a fairly low-key performance overall. There’s not much chemistry between her and Marton Csokas’s rather unappealing Orsino, while her scenes with Amanda Drew’s Olivia certainly don’t achieve the kind of sexual tension that’s characterised this relationship in other productions. This is, by some considerable margin, the most chaste, asexual Twelfth Night in recent memory; the production seems oddly oblivious to the implications of Shakespeare’s gender play, and its subversive, disruptive and liberating potential.

Even so, there are some appealing elements. It’s particularly wonderful to see Simon Callow back on an NT stage; the actor’s Sir Toby Belch is - unsurprisingly - merriment personified. Callow’s palpable relish of the language and sheer delight in performance are infectious, and he gives the proceedings a needed shot of energy each time he appears. He’s well supported by Finty Williams’s giggly Maria, and by Charles Edwards who proves an endearingly insecure Andrew Aguecheek. Edwards’s “I was adored once too” touches the heart, and he has some memorable comic business, especially when indulging in some marvellously inept swordplay. The expert David Ryall is a good Feste, and Simon Paisley Day’s Malvolio has some effective moments (not least his po-faced delivery of Malvolio’s declaration “I am happy”). But the big set-pieces - notably, the "yellow stockings" scene - tend to disappoint; they’re simply not funny enough. And the presentation of Malvolio’s punishment and humiliation don't penetrate very far into the darker recesses of the play, either.

Indeed, Hall’s production seems content to stay on the surface most of the time, with the result that the final reunions and pairings carry little emotional weight. Twelfth Night - a play in which almost every character is madly in love with someone they shouldn’t be - needs more crazy energy than the fairly measured staging that it’s given here. Hall’s approach seems altogether too decorous. The play’s quick shifts in mood aren’t fully achieved; the production never exhilarates you; and there never seems to be very much at stake.

It’s possible, of course, that some of these elements might fall into place as the run progresses. At present, though, the production just feels sadly unadventurous; it leaves the wilder, stranger and sexier reaches of this great play entirely unexplored.

The production ran for 2 hours 50 minutes on Saturday. The entire run is sold out, but day seats are available.


  1. We saw it last night. Agree with most of your comments. Staid and sexless.

  2. Yes, 'twas disappointing indeed.

  3. I will give this a miss!
    culturally barren here
    althoughh I LOVED tHE kINGS SPEECH!

    GOING TO SEE A RE SHOWING OF touch of evil ON WED!

  4. Yes, it was a big let-down; had been looking forward to it alot.

    Enjoy TOUCH OF EVIL. Haven't seen it for years but I remember loving it.

    Haven't seen THE KING'S SPEECH yet: I can't seem to get at all excited at the prospect. I just hope you didn't *applaud* at the end. :)

  5. I agree with most of what you said except I thouht Rebecca Hall was terrible.There was no difference in character between Viola and Cessario and no body language,she looked like one of the cast fromm Riverdance with her arms glued to her side but without the movement.

  6. I recommend you go and see Double Falsehood at The Union Theatre. I saw their first preview two nights ago and it knocks spots of NT's Twelfth Night. Yes there's not a all-star cast but it was far more engaging. Double Falsehood is based on Cardinio written as a collaboration between Shakespeare and John Fletcher. Incredibly fast moving and exciting plot, some excellent performances and an exquisite design, i don't think i've every seen the Union Theatre look quite so good. It's on for a month so don't miss it.

  7. Thanks. I'd been considering seeing DOUBLE FALSEHOOD; will definitely do so now.