‘The Shipwreck Season’
Royal Shakespeare Theatre
Stratford Upon Avon
25th April, 2012, 7 pm
Directed by David Farr
Amie Burns Walker
A Guardian blog I read before seeing this production lamented the RSC ensemble policy, comparing it in two directions. First was to the innovative companies like Headlong and then even more on the outer edge, Filter. The other comparison was the star vehicle. The answer is that the RSC doesn’t need big names to put bums on its uncomfortable seats: everything is a sell-out anyway, and the ensemble production gives all the other fine actors a springboard. I agree with the RSC on both counts on star names. Not needed. The jury’s out on innovation. I’m not sure that people journey on pilgrimages to Stratford to see Shakespeare with improvisation, lots of film projection, or 50% new lines.
The last Twelfth Nights I saw were star vehicles: Derek Jacobi as Malvolio in the Donmar West End season, and Patrick Stewart as Malvolio at Chichester. Then I saw Ferdy Roberts do Malvolio (twice) in Filter’s production set in a recording studio. The Filter was confused by having one actor play Sebastian AND Viola, and even just a hat or scarf would have helped the audience work out which was which, but it was a powerful Malvolio. The Donmar West End was the definitive one, and good as Derek Jacobi was, it was the only Twelfth Night I’ve seen where Olivia completely stole the show by being the most charismatic actor on stage.
The RSC was our second in the Shipwreck Season following Comedy of Errors the night before with the same actors. We had high expectations, as after the second half we had thought the first night a fabulously energetic production. I hate doing negative reviews, but … unfortunately this is the only time I’ve seen this play, one I first saw when I was seventeen, and have seen around ten times, where I had difficulty following the plot, and at times staying awake. For most of it I was slightly bored, and in the second half we had a better view because the people next to us didn’t come back after the interval. Even so, we couldn’t see any of the business at the top of the lift dressing up Feste as a priest. As the night before, we wondered why the director hadn’t gone round the theatre watching rehearsals from various angles. The roofs block out a lot unless you’re sitting at the front, and when action is high up, three floors up, to the stage right of the stage I’d guess 20% lose it. The theatre space has many virtues, but this is the third time I’ve had important action lost because of it. Most reviewers get decent seats and don’t realize!
What went wrong? And it did go wrong. I’m not alone. Coming out two guys behind were chatting.’Did you enjoy it?”No!!!’ ‘Me neither.’
Scene 1, Viola in foreground
Incoherence tops the lists of faults, and by that I mean incoherent direction, not delivery. It starts with the set, which is lumped on top of the base shipwreck stage. The set is an exploded hotel. (The programme notes to The Tempest say it’s a hotel after a flood, but I wouldn’t have guessed). Reception desk here. Three story lift with metal gates there. A huge bed angled on the back. A bath here. A broken sink there. The Tower of Terror Hotel perhaps. The set is so messy that it has an effect on the play.
The other major fault is that it wasn’t very funny. We’d laughed out loud at the two Dromios the night before. Here they were Sir Andrew Aguecheek and Fabian. They were the funniest on the stage, together with Olivia, but even so it was Sir Andrew done by a Hugh Laurie (as Bertie Wooster) impersonator with a tad of Rick Mayall. Sir Toby Belch did all the right things, looked right but didn’t make us smile once. Maria, after seeing a couple of strong, saucy, mischievous Marias, was plain dull, and her delivery breathless verging on ashmatic. A major comedy part was weak. Normally the joy of the play comes from the interaction of these four. The three men were very good popping up and down behind the reception desk in the letter reading scene. Apart from that, the quartet didn’t gell. Kirsty Bushell as Olivia would get my nomination for best role … which was the same choice as the Donmar production. It’s a good role. She’s a natural comedian, but both Sir Andrew and Fabian are played by brilliant natural comedians too.
Malvolio with letter, listeners in background
Jonathan Slinger was Malvolio, an uptight, fussy, neat little Malvolio, too. One big laugh is him arriving on a real golf cart, but that’s just the broker’s men in any Cinderella pantomime. The letter scene can’t go wrong, and didn’t, and the yellow cross gartered stockings were really very funny, because they were women’s nylons with suspender belt, large codpiece and completely bare bum. An award for bravery, but the audience stage left were in hysterics as he climbed stairs with bare bum facing them. The other side of the theatre were spared the view. If it’s your biggest laugh, in this theatre, you put it central. But Slinger isn’t a natural comedian anyway. He’s a five star Prospero, but he excels in soliloquy. Because he’s a brilliant actor, he does it all very well, but there’s a wink in the eye, something you can’t put your hand on, about the instinctive comedian. All the other three recent Malvolios were funnier, even without the suspenders and bare cheek(s) of it.
Viola and Sebastian were very different in both size and build. The device to make them potentially confusing to everyone else was to give both mild Irish accents. I thought that a good idea … it fits the line about them both sounding the same. The physical difference stretches the willing suspension of disbelief to breaking point in spite of strong costume choices. Emily Taffe was a young looking Viola, and Orsino was played by Jonathan McGuiness who is also Antipholus of Syracuse. As Emily Taffe is Luciana in that, they end up kissing each other in both plays.
Feste, Olivia’s Fool (i.e jester) is a problem role in every production. The onslaught of puns doesn’t work nowadays. Modern dress doesn’t help. Feste, like Puck, needs something … conjuring tricks, costume, acrobatics, movement or whatever. Kevin McMonagle has an extremely distinctive and unusual voice, and the night before as The Merchant, it was dramatically effective in a small role. As Feste, there was too much of it with its hooting, nasal quality, and an odd voice isn’t the ‘something’ it needs. It’s a part I’d trim as much as possible in any production. The big scene with Malvolio in the cellar was truly dire. They used exactly the same electric shock treatment with sparks on Slinger that Slinger as Dr Pinch had used on Antipholus of Ephesus the night before. It was just incomprehensible. That scene falls flat nowadays … it did in both the other big ones. Just as you can’t go wrong with the letter scene, it’s hard to see how you can go right with the material on the page in Malvolio’s cellar scene. Patrick Stewart was nearest to making it work. Let’s admit it.There are some hard-to-pull off scenes in Shakespeare. The cellar scene is a classic example.
Tricks and things? Both Viola and Sebastian arrived on the shore of Illyria by swimming up from under the stage into the exposed area of the tank. Great, but if you’ve seen the Cirque du Soleil in “O” that’s what the whole cast are doing all the time. The ten-part “Tantalus” used it too. Most people haven’t and so it is a spectacular moment. The funniest bit was when Sir Andrew fell in. On the other hand, throwing a bunch of roses in the water tank is the profit from one seat. I’m sure they’re cloth, but even so.
The end was Feste singing solo, and to specially-composed music. He sang it extremely well and it was a very nice low key finish. There was a four piece backing group (three strings and keyboards). I didn’t see them until the curtain calls, but you miss a few areas from the back stalls. But I don’t recall hearing them either.
I’ve aways said ANY production by the RSC has reasons to make it worth seeing. This Twelfth Night stays within that, but less so than the other two productions there.
The programme had a lot on immigration … relevant to the Comedy of Errors, but not to this one.
I’d forgotten my obligatory smoking note. It was seconds long and funny. Viola, dressed as the boy, Cesario, is given a cigarette and tries to light the wrong end. Not gratuitous, and like Clinton at Oxford, they didn’t inhale.