Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford – until 14 February 2018
“What country, friend, is this?” That soon becomes clear, in this beautiful rendition of Shakespeare’s melancholy comedy of love and misapprehension. From the first glimpse of Orsino’s lounging household beneath its golden dome, with the Duke (Nicholas Bishop, camp as ninepence at this point) dashingly painting his muse Curio as a near-nude Cupid, we know just where we are. Ravishingly designed by Simon Higlett (it’ll look fabulous on screen too) the country where director Christopher Luscombe has landed us is the England of the 1890’s. It is the land of Wilde and Beardsley and Ruskin and Sickert, of Yellow-Book aestheticism and dandyish decadence and romantic exoticism.
That Imperial-era Orientalism makes it all the more apt that Viola and Sebastian, alien siblings landed and thinking one another drowned, are Indian: Dinita Gohil and Esh Alladi. Thus when Viola joins Duke Orsino’s court it is understandable that he can wear modern suits while she casts off the sari for the gold tunic , red sash and braided pillbox hat of an easternesque page. It is fitting too that Feste, in Olivia’s otherwise soberly late-Victorian household, should have a dash of exotic sartorial glamour, while Toby Belch is just a big bluff waistcoated bully and Aguecheek a hilarious dotard in breeches and Argyle socks with (at one point) a sort of deerstalker motoring-hat. It is perhaps no accident that this glorious production comes neck-and-neck with the film Victoria and Abdul, about HM’s preoccupation with her own Indian “munshi”.
This perfection of design and setting contributes not a little to the real heart of the play: the gender-bending, the unbalancing sibling griefs of Olivia and Viola, the love and delusion and desire which shine romantic in the heroines and ludicrous in the shamed Malvolio. Not a nuance is missed, not a joke fails, Shakespeare’s balance of dark and light shimmers as bright as the golden dome and as dark as the wood where the “mad” steward is confined.
There are lines sometimes lost which grow new feeling , emotional meanings teased out with throwaway precision, absurdities gleefully milked . The garden eavesdropping scene is wonderfully done, as the three plotters play garden-statues around the ecstatic Malvolio (Adrian Edmondson capering for England). You haven’t lived till you see Michael Cochrane’s fabulously hopeless Aguecheek suddenly popping head-up from behind a very explicit neo-Grecian statue, or John Hodgkinson’s Belch providing the Venus de Milo’s arms. It is also oddly shattering how clear Hodgkinson makes it that Toby Belch is a real Bullingdon-bully and Aguecheek , for all the merry dancing, his fool. HIs final contempt of the rich knight, which I had forgotten, is up there with Prince Hal’s “I know thee not, old man”. It strikes as much of a chill as Malvolio’s humiliation: and that, again, is deepened in significance by the dismay of Kara Tointon’s finely drawn Olivia, and Beruce Khan’s calculatedly capering Feste, fuelled by anger and melancholy.
AS for the gender-bending, we have lately seen Simon Godwin’s good NT production turning the steward into Malvolia, with consequent lesbian desire; but what happens here is, oddly, still more fluidly exciting, which befits the bi-curious fashion of today. Viola’s veiled confessional scene with Orsino – “My father had a daughter loved a man..” shimmers with meaning, their kiss beneath the absurd golden dome shaking the heart. Dinita Gohil, who at first I feared was too declamatory, gives real emotional weight and purity to the scene. The final explanation scene rattles, beneath the joy and laughter, with a sense that while the twins are happy, both Olivia and Orsino are settling for conventional heterosexuality not without a bat-squeak of regret for the homoerotic longings into which they were drawn by mere costume.
But the whole ensemble is perfect: Vivien Parry gives us Maria as a vindictive virago, her dark strength indicating that she will keep the fearful farting Belch in order once she nabs him; Sarah Twomey, Verity Kirk and Sally Cheng are lovely maids, Far more of the company than usual are on an RSC debut season, and there is an exuberance which warms the whole evening, culminating when they dance us off, Globe-style, in glorious vaudeville echoes of the earlier drinking scene. I’d go again tomorrow. Hey ho, the wind and the rain…