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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at Courtyard Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon


  James Fleet and Richard McCabe

With every Twelfth Night comes the question, who plays Malvolio? Gregory Doran’s Royal Shakespeare Company production delivers the answer in the form of Richard Wilson, known to British television audiences as Victor Meldrew in the long-running sitcom One Foot in the Grave.
Meldrew is the curmudgeon’s curmudgeon, the king of grouch, a pensioner whose stony stare could sink a thousand ships. And in the scene where Wilson’s rudely awakened Malvolio pops up through the stage to confront the night-time rumpus caused by Sirs Belch and Aguecheek, Wilson could have easily deployed his television character’s old catch phrase, “I don’t believe it!” a line that has been honed to reflect suburban outrage at falling standards and other people’s behaviour.
With his candle lantern and drooping nightcap, Shakespeare’s Malvolio could just as easily pass as Dickens’ Scrooge. Maybe Doran has an eye on his production’s London run, which begins just before Christmas.
But although this is the kind of obvious casting that makes you wonder why it took so long, as with Wilson’s Meldrew, Malvolio’s bark is much worse than his bite. Which would be fine if he at least had a fierce bark.
When he admonishes Richard McCabe's over-vulgarised Belch (one fart directed at the audience you can get away with, but two?) and James
Fleet’s very funny Aguecheek, a preening long-haired fop, Malvolio’s complaint comes across as an eminently reasonable request. And although his subsequent imprisonment feels all the more unjust for that, the truth is that you don’t need to agree with Olivia’s pompous steward to recognise the travesty of his punishment. But you do need to be on the side of his tormentors when his humiliation comes in the garden scene. And when it comes, we are not on their side.
Robert Jones'  design takes at her word Maria’s description of the “box-tree” from which the pranksters view the fun. It’s a square, topiary tree house, which serves as such a good hiding place, it allows for none of the funny stuff that can result from inadequate cover. Although, Maria’s fake letter getting stuck to Malvolio’s shoe is a nice touch, as is sourpuss's first attempt at a smile, which he achieves by jamming his fingers into the corners of his mouth.
We shouldn’t overplay Wilson’s television career. He is a respected theatre actor and director. But the last time Doran joined a television star to an RSC ensemble cast was when David Tennant played Hamlet, and that production fired on all cylinders. Not so here.
In this Illyria, there are Greek Orthodox processions headed by bearded priests who walk through Ottoman markets where you can lounge while smoking hookah pipes. The setting is an uncertain mix of cassocks and cushions.
Alexandra Gilbreath’s Olivia transmits a refreshingly self-mocking kind of vanity, but the singing voice of Miltos Yerolemou’s curly-mopped Feste is far from the mellifluous delight described by Aguecheek. Not much more convincing is Simeon Moore’s dreadlocked Antonio, who comes across more as a survivor of the hippy trail haunted by a dark narcotic past than a dashing captain.
Doran is more sure footed when exploring the play’s blurred distinctions between sexuality and gender. When Nancy Carroll's Viola drops her male disguise of Cesario to declare her love for employer Orsino, the moment hangs in the air as the Duke’s half-naked, towel-flicking attendants overhear the remark and smirk knowingly as if in Cesario they’ve discovered a new recruit. And interestingly Orsino is prone to flamboyant fits of pique and is played by Jo Stone-Fewings as a decidedly bi-sexual Duke.
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