Review: Twelfth Night, National Theatre

“‘Tis not so sweet now as it was before”

To celebrate his 80th birthday, Sir Peter Hall returns to the National Theatre which he directed for 25 years, with a production of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night at the Cottesloe. It features a rather starry cast including his daughter Rebecca Hall and Simon Callow and given how well done last year’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream at Kingston was, this has been an eagerly anticipated production for me for a fair few months. This is a review of a preview, the penultimate one as it opens on Tuesday, but still a preview nonetheless though I stand by my comments here.

This is just a production that is lacking, lacking in almost every department and there isn’t even a particular aspect that shines above the others that one could excuse weakness elsewhere for. It feels proficient rather than inspired and though performances may improve and the pacing can be tightened up, the whole approach to this production is unspectacular. Worse than that, it is often boring and the first half in particular is currently far too languid and dull as attested by a fair few walk-outs at the interval.

Played in traditional dress (which put me in mind of The Three Musketeers more often than not) and keeping the wig department extremely busy, all the men wear their hair long which is fine in itself, but when Viola’s transformation is thus effected simply by putting on an outfit (Hall’s hair is then allowed to remain loose), it was just the first of many underwhelming moments in this tale of unrequited love and mistaken identities.

Rebecca Hall brings a tender subtlety to her beautifully spoken performance which works in some respects but not others: her quietly bemused Cesario garnered many a chuckle when commenting on the madness going on around him, but this also results in a kind of reservedness to her portrayal. There’s not quite the requisite zest, to truly convince as both the object and subject of unrequited love, but I feel this is a general malaise of the production and specifically with her co-stars.

Marton Csokas’ Orsino feels badly misjudged, listless and lethargic throughout, showing no real charm and bringing no life to Shakespeare’s words, indeed he brought little volume to them either at times. And Amanda Drew as Olivia is strangely subdued, even after she breaks free from her mourning dress into a dodgy bright orange number there’s no real spark, no charge to her pursuit of Cesario. Her verse speaking is lovely, but it was hard not to be underwhelmed knowing how good an actress she is. Elsewhere, Ben Mansfield as Sebastian, David Ryall’s Feste, even Simon Paisley Day’s Malvolio were all fine, but competent rather than revelatory, no-one really catches fire which is a real shame in this particular play which is so ensemble heavy.

The only real energy came from the comic strand with Charles Edwards’ golden Labrador of an Andrew Aguecheek being an absolute delight and Finty Williams’ Maria really making the most of what is quite a small role with an effervescence that was just lacking elsewhere. Simon Callow’s Toby Belch is also strong, played exactly how one would expect Callow to play it but he has such a natural ease with the verse that is allowed to freely flow here with these characters that makes these scenes the highlight of the show, Samuel James’ Fabian being an additional little bright light. Opening the second half with Malvolio’s discovery of the letter is a wise choice given the energy they bring.

The playing space has been opened up quite considerably, as big as I’ve ever seen a traditional end-on stage in the Cottesloe, but it isn’t then utilised to its best advantage. Anthony Ward’s design is non-specific and rather bland, bleached brick rear wall and pale timber floorboards, a terribly naff set of toy houses and a canopy which is occasionally lowered to create a sense of change in location but more often than not is just hanging from above, casting a huge shadow on the stage. There’s something almost perverse in the creation of so much space and yet frequently having characters speak on their own, Peter Mumford’s lighting does little to hide the vast expanse of empty space and despite having brought in a live band, there is very little music used throughout. As for the final song with its exhortations for the audience to join in the chorus of ‘Hey nonny no’, I simply cringed.

The word that springs to mind when thinking about this production is, unfortunately, mediocre: it just brings nothing new or refreshing to this oft-performed play. One doesn’t go to a Peter Hall production expecting great innovation but one does expect a classic interpretation, alive to the very nature of the play. But in underplaying and in some cases denying the sexiness, the humour, the darkness, the musicality of Twelfth Night, he has reduced this play to an unthreatening, criminally dull three hours: utterly underwhelming.

(NB: The highlight of the evening for me was discovering the joys of row T at the Cottesloe. Sold as restricted view for £10, our seats offered an unhampered view from the centre of the back row and given how small the theatre is and how far forward the stage comes in this production, they were excellent value.)

Running time: 2 hours 50 minutes (with interval)
Programme cost: £2.50
Booking until 2nd March, currently sold out but keep an eye out for returns, a few dates have been popping up occasionally on the website
Note: a small amount of flashing lights at the beginning

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