Plain speaking in Illyria
Review of Twelfth Night
Times Literary Supplement, 29 March 1991
Surprisingly, and disappointingly, this production lacks direction. Its aim is plain, and deserving of applause; let Shakespeare speak, without superimposed interpretation. The play itself, from its first line to its last, pleads for just such a performance. It avowedly strives to please us by presenting love and drama in terms of music, of which we can also make what we will. For this purpose, Peter Hall eschews both the broad approach of the English Shakespeare Company and the subtler individual detail of its Royal counterpart. His musical models are neither choral works nor Lieder but Mozart operas; in theory, the perfect paradigm for the exposition and resolution of sexual ambiguities and tensions. At The Playhouse, the actual on-stage music is minimal, if not minimalist; but the quasi-musical effects are pervasive. Thus Maria Miles, who has an occasional twinkle of star quality, inserts a deliberate pause before each of her set speeches, as if to introduce a Viola solo. The three merry men in the caterwauling scene are arranged as an operatic trio. Above all, the denouement works wonders by stage grouping and delivery. Against the background of real ungrudging reconciliation, as in Figaro and Così, the added theme of revenge strikes a painfully jarring and unresolved discord. The great era of Shakespearean tragedy is waiting round the corner, out of sight.
So, sadly, is much of this comedy. As yet, the company is hardly an entity, let alone a unity; and it achieves no more than a good concert performance, in which the artists address the audience. In consequence there is too little sense of the required interplay within the play. The characters fall in or out of love with themselves instead of each other; so no independent dramatic world is created except by individual effort, which is fitful. The steadiest highlight is Eric Porter's Malvolio, whose malevolence is not merely nominal. His study could achieve greatness, if it were more strongly supported by stage action and reaction. But his tormentors are unhelpfully lightweight. Dinsdale Landen offers too much literal Belch and not enough poetic Sir Toby; that malicious mischief-maker is concealed in a cosy Santa Claus character and costume. No one could have guessed from Diane Bull's Mrs Mopp impersonation that Maria is a gentlewoman, still less the brains behind the counterfeit-letter plot. Martin Jarvis makes an intelligent Aguecheek, which is a genuine achievement; but that paradox proves impossible to sustain. The glum laughter and sad clowning of David Ryall's Feste, on the other hand, are convincing enough; but his dry, throwaway style of singing does little for lyricism in Illyria. Sam Crowe's amorous metamorphosis from dark mourning into bright morning is well effected, with the help of costume and lighting changes. But neither aspect of Olivia makes any special appeal to Richard Garnett's Orsino, who seems strangely serene for so desperately frustrated a lover. His philosophical reading remains unperturbed even when his page turns into a woman before his eyes. As her non-identical twin brother Sebastian, Peter Lindford makes the most of his part; so does David Hargreaves, who for some brief but compelling moments not only holds but dominates the stage as the sea-captain Antonio.
Of course there is much else to admire and relish, including many a deft directorial touch if no very strong or consistent grasp. The design and decor are unobtrusively expressive and relevant; the autumnal setting of flame-coloured foliage with a hint of frost to follow, and the alternation of smoky mists with sunny radiance, are modestly yet memorably managed. But where are the expected fire and warmth?