“Be not afraid of greatness. Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them”.
Identical twins Viola and Sebastian are separated in a shipwreck. Believing her brother to have drowned, Viola disguises herself as young man Cesario, and enters the service of the Duke Orsino. She soon falls in love with the Duke, who dotes on Olivia, who in turn falls for Viola, thinking she is a man (or what you will). However, when Sebastian arrives on the scene, having been rescued by one Antonio, chaos inevitably ensues…
Christopher Luscombe directs the RSC‘s latest production of ‘Twelfth Night’, Shakespeare’s comic tale of mistaken identity, gender reversal and unrequited love. The play mirrors the riotous disorder of the festive season, a time characterized by drunken revelry and social inversion. Such an atmosphere pervades this production, making it the perfect festive treat.
Reset in 1890s England, a time synonymous with unprecedented social change, the Victorian setting is one to which the language of Shakespeare surprisingly yet adequately lends itself, and Luscombe doesn’t hesitate to take full advantage of the fact. He skilfully explores the idea of British colonialism (having been inspired by the relationship between Queen Victoria and her attendant Abdul Karim) in his decision to portray Viola, Sebastian, and Olivia’s ‘munshi’ Feste as being of Indian descent. This serves only to exemplify their otherness, as they become a source of fascination for characters and audiences alike.
Simon Higlett‘s lavish sets certainly indulge the decadence of the period, without verging into excess. The stage transforms – from the Duke’s candle-lit city boudoir, to the sculpture gardens of Olivia’s countryside manor, to a bustling London train station – with relative ease, the transition almost unnoticeable. Coupled with an uplifting musical score by composer Nigel Hess, this is a very handsome production.
The play’s ensemble is equally dazzling, each member delivering their lines with eloquent precision. Adrian Edmondson shines as Malvolio, his performance hypnotic. He expertly captures the balance of the character – one minute a pompous, disapproving steward, the next donning yellow stockings and grinning inanely, carried away by the rapturous applause his musical number receives. He demands sympathy from his audience at the end of the play, and they stand ready to offer it. Kara Tointon captivates as Olivia with her poised performance, while Dinita Gohil‘s Viola exudes charm. His performance as the Duke Orsino worthy of particular note, Nicholas Bishop masterly channels the Bohemian aestheticism of the character. John Hodgkinson and Michael Cochrane delight as comic duo Sirs Toby Belch and Andrew Aguecheek with their outstanding, and genuinely funny, performances.
Luscombe bravely develops the themes of sexual ambiguity and gender identity prevalent in the play (most notably in his portrayal of Antonio’s feelings for Sebastian, the Duke’s homoerotic urges for Cesario, and Olivia’s longing for Viola), defending the idea that love is genderless. Thus, despite bursting with slapstick comedy, this is a play of great depth and emotional nuance.
The production doesn’t just achieve greatness, it radiates it from its very core. An enchanting, Wildean rendition of Shakespeare’s quintessential comedy, it seduces the senses with unending delight. Indeed, ‘Twelfth Night’ is guaranteed to knock your yellow stockings off.