Review: Twelfth Night at the RSC

Review: Twelfth Night at the RSC

By Richard Lutz

So, I guess you really want to know how Vyvian Basterd from The Young Ones - y'know, the nutcase with the metal studs implanted in his forehead - gets on as the deeply unpleasant Malvolio in Shakespeare's Twelfth Night?

It's a major role in this elegant and tricksy of comic plays. And actor Ade Edmondson (aka Vyvian) is a dab hand at portraying the mean spirited court steward. His Malvolio is a super-prig brought low by cynical courtiers bent on destroying him. One minute, he's an uber-Puritan decked out in white gloves and smug grimace. And the next, he's prancing about like an end-of-pier song and dance man in yellow cross gartered stockings.

Even if he overdoes it at times as he chirps a deluded love song, Edmondson does have the acting background to create sympathy as Malvolio is humiliated by the devilish prank that diminishes him.

But though he carries  it off, the star is his chief tormentor, Sir Toby Belch. He's the all consuming court pisshead with an evil glint in his eye who might as well be a distant relative of Falstaff with a taste for incessant boozing and a great line or two. He's a nasty piece of work, played by John Hodgkinson, but rowdily funny, a bad guy you have to like. 

These two roles are crammed into a production placed firmly in the late Victorian era. To add an end of Empire feel, director Christopher Luscombe has a field day with set designs split between the grand Wightwick Manor just outside of Wolverhampton and the heavily brocaded louche surroundings of a Maharajah's palace.

The plot adds to the period atmosphere with the separated twins, Viola and Sebastian, portrayed as children of the Indian Raj who think each other dead after a sea storm. Their reunion is subtly disturbing as they seem to meekly accept the inevitable romantic pairings off to round out the play. Is it a take on how India itself must have felt as it bowed to Britain's turn of the century imperialism?  Does the gender changing of the twins suggest how the sub continent itself altered  to the master's wishes over the centuries?

Whatever the meaning, it is still poignant and must have reflected the mysteries of Shakespeare's own life. He had a boy and girl twins too.  His son, Hamnet, died only five years  before he wrote Twelfth Night.  And you somehow feel the little boy's spectre floats over this troubling play about loss and a dream of reunification.

The production is on at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre until 24 February. Box office: 01789 403493.