If I had to pick an actress to join me in a shipwreck on the coast of Illyria, Nancy Carroll would be right at the top of my list. I've seen her play a wonderful variety of roles, from a vicar's wife in See How They Run to a 19th century Swedish painter in The Enchantment, as well as in Arcadia, Etherege's The Man of Mode and Granville-Barker's The Voysey Inheritance. She has excelled in all of them and I can't imagine that Gregory Doran had any hesitation about summoning her back to the RSC to play Viola in Twelfth Night, playing until the end of of February at the Duke of York's. I'm an abject admirer of Ms Carroll and hope her babysitting arrangements are watertight, because here she's playing opposite her husband Jo Stone-Fewings as Orsino. Orsino is in my view one of Shakespeare's really tricky male parts. How do you play a swooning obsessive who suddenly abandons Olivia, the object of his affections and pairs up with Cesario/Viola at the end of the play? There has to be some kind of erotic charge between Orsino and Cesario in their moments of intimacy, when the sexual ambiguity of Shakespeare's cross-dressing overcomes them and their mutual attraction becomes obvious. The other factor the actor has to convey is that Orsino is really in love with himself, not with Olivia. Stone-Fewings does this very well, thanks to Doran's inspired decision to site the play in what can best be described as a Byronic version of Illyria. What I enjoy in Doran's approach to Shakespeare is that when he picks a period and a place for his production, he thinks through every small detail and everything fits into place; there's no pick-and-mix approach. He brought off a similar trick eight years ago with an RSC production of All's Well That End's Well with Harriet Walter and Nicholas Le Prevost as Beatrice and Benedict, set in Mussolini's 1930s Sicily. This time around he's switched to the early 19th century when the Balkans were ruled by the Ottomans. Orsino becomes a Byronic hero, lounging around in colourful exotic garb, while Sir Toby Belch smokes a hookah. Cesario and Sebastian, as new arrivals, wear smart Regency boots and breeches and nice green frock-coats, looking like fresh-faced midshipmen in Nelson's navy, while all around them Orientalism runs riot. The mixture works perfectly, with Turkish musicians, a Greek Orthodox priest in black and lots of gorgeous multicoloured designer coats and dressing gowns.
Although Stone-Fewings and Carroll perhaps underplay the ambiguous attraction between Orsino and Cesario, they make a terrific couple. There's also a memorable and very flirty Olivia from Alexandra Gilbreath, though her hop-step-and-jump routine when she finally captures Sebastian suggeststhat she lurches a little too far into broad comedy at the expense of raw emotion. The more times I see this play, the more I look forward most of all to the scenes between Olivia and Cesario. In last year's rather muddled Donmar West End production Victoria Hamilton and Indira Varma turned their dialogues into the highlight of the play, and the same thing happens in this production. Gilbreath and Carroll are a joy to watch, conveying a real intensity of conflicting emotions.
Richard Wilson as Malvolio is the man who is on all the posters, but I wasn't swept away by his interpretation of the role. Even in yellow stockings and cross-gartered, he doesn't quite have the range to allow the audience to forget his most famous creation, the querulous Victor Meldrew in One Foot In The Grave. I preferred Derek Jacobi last year, though for my money the greatest Malvolio ever was the hairnetted Simon Russell Beale in Sam Mendes' valedictory production at the Donmar in 2002. Wilson is fine, but doesn't bring anything startlingly original to his portrayal. The fact that he is a good twenty years older than the rest of the cast adds an original element to his persecution, which appears not only unpleasant, but also ageist. I felt this could perhaps have been exploited more. I enjoyed Richard McCabe as Sir Toby Belch and James Fleet as Sir Andrew Aguecheek, though they don't quite drive out the memory of Ron Cook and Guy Henry in last year's Donmar production. Miltos Yerolemou seems to lack the right degree of detachment and melancholy as Feste -- one of Shakespeare's most fiendishly difficult parts. He turns Feste into a roguish cheeky chappie who deftly punctures the romantic atmosphere created by his own songs. But he lacks the indefinable meditative quality which Peter Hamilton Dyer brought to the part in the memorable all-male production at Shakespeare's Globe about eight years ago.
Altogether I enjoyed this production very much, not least because Doran delivers some unexpectedly funny moments and handles the technically complex final scene quite brilliantly. The acting is excellent in depth and the casting of Pamela Nomvete as Maria, Tony Jayawardena as Fabian and Prasana Puwanarajah as the priest brings an extra dimension to the play. What I would really like to see the next time I go to see Twelfth Night is Malvolio played by a black actor, surrounded by an all-white cast. Has this ever been done?