I have a modest 'back to basics' proposal for the Royal Shakespeare Company's new boss Greg Doran: despatch all the company's set and costume designers, composers, technical panjandrums and assorted backstage experts in this, that and the other on an extended holiday for a year. Maroon them on a desert island, leave behind just the actors and directors and let them get on with Shakespeare on their own.
This bright idea, which I know has no chance of being accepted, is prompted by my frustration at seeing yet another over-conceptualised, over-designed RSC production which squeezes the life out of one of Shakespeare's most marvellous plays. Faites simple was Escoffier's kitchen maxim, and it's not a bad idea in the theatre either. It explains why I have found recent productions of Shakespeare by scratch companies from South Sudan and Afghanistan at Shakespeare's Globe ten times more enjoyable than my outing to the Roundhouse to the RSC's Twelfth Night.
The simple approach to Shakespeare, relying on the actors to convey the meaning of the play, pays off brilliantly for Declan Donnellan's Cheek By Jowl company; it also works in small theatres like Bristol's Tobacco Factory and London's Donmar, where there isn't room for any kind of stage set. Of course there are exceptions to my argument; nobody can accuse Rupert Goold of keeping it simple, and I very much enjoyed his bold translation of The Merchant of Venice to Las Vegas for the RSC in 2011.
But elaborate set designs and the elaborate directorial concepts that go with them can easily imprison the actors. I feel that about the National Theatre's current production of Antigone, and the same problem is even more evident in David Farr's Twelfth Night. Jon Bausor's set includes a water tank, a piano, an old-fashioned lift with iron grilles, a revolving doorway, and a hotel front desk. It suggests that Olivia's home in Illyria is a seedy old-fashioned boarding house, home to a bunch of undesirable transients. Sitting in a £25 seat with terrible sightlines at the very end of the horseshoe-shaped auditorium, I started wondering during the first half what else might be lurking in the upstage area I was unable to see; when I moved to an empty seat after the interval, there turned out to be a giant double bed there as well. Everything but the kitchen sink, in fact. When I started reading the programme I found things that were equally irrelevant to the play -- an essay by Tariq Modood about immigration and multiculturalism, and some poetic musings about the transformative power of the sea.
None of this would matter too much if this charmless production was able to summon up any of the magical qualities of Shakespeare's play. But the relationships between the characters are perfunctory; I have seen this play countless times, and I struggle to recall a production, professional or amateur, with so little erotic chemistry between the protagonists. No sparks of attraction or seduction fly between Orsino and his androgynous little helper Cesario, nor between Cesario and the flirty Olivia. The only outstanding performance, tellingly, comes from Jonathan Slinger as Malvolio, a character who has no meaningful relationships of any kind. Much of the casting for this play seems to be below the RSC's usual standards, and the director seems to prefer his actors to shout at each other from several yards apart. This is a play that should be both sexy and funny. In this production, it manages to be neither. The biggest laugh of the night comes when Malvolio enters on an electric golf buggy with a sign saying Management Use Only. At one point Sir Andrew Aguecheek shouts into a mobile phone 'Taxi to the airport!' which raises a similar easy laugh, but the gag jars with the overall design of the production. David Farr is a director for whom I usually have a lot of respect, but his attempt to reinvent Twelfth Night just hasn't worked. Perhaps he, Greg Doran and all the other RSC directorial team should put on heavy disguise and pay a few incognito visits to Shakespeare's Globe. The Globe has also had its share of bad productions over the years, but with a few exceptions (yes, I do mean Lucy Bailey), its directors know that the actors come first.