GORDON PARSONS enjoys the delights of a Shakespeare comedy
Twelfth Night Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon 4/5
“WHAT country, friend, is this?” asks the shipwrecked Viola at the opening of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night.
The answer provided by Christopher Luscombe’s joyous production is one of sheer delight.
Designer Simon Higlett’s set captures the colours and languorous warmth of a Wildean fin-de-siecle, where Nicholas Bishop’s Duke Orsino, with his Indian servants, indulges his aesthetic affectations in his pre-Raphaelite studio which in a moment can magically mutate into a Victorian railway station or a classical garden.
When Dinita Gohil’s Viola, transformed into an attractively androgynous Cesario, joins Orsino’s staff, the knowing glances of her companions signal that it won’t be long before her master’s interests are aroused.
Meanwhile, she is given the task of wooing Kara Tointon’s resistant Lady Olivia on his behalf.
She too is equally entranced by this seductively innocent youth and so the threesome game of love develops, only to be resolved by the rabbit-from-the-hat introduction of a twin brother, Sebastan.
With Viola emerging from her Cesario role, all would seem well. But Luscombe introduces the nice irony of both Orsino and Olivia not being as sure of this happy ending as they might have wished.
The comic byplay of John Hodgkinson’s farting Sir Toby Belch and his hapless stooge, Michael Cochrane’s Sir Andrew Aguecheek, is as always the ballast of Shakespeare’s perennially popular comedy.
That’s none more so than when, at key moments of possible discovery, they hide behind classical statuary and provide missing limbs or decorously hide the naughty bits.
Those tricks dupe Olivia’s overbearing butler Malvolio, brilliantly played by Adrian Edmondson, whose austere self-regard breaks into manic capering delight in the induced belief that his mistress loves him.
Throughout, Luscombe punctuates the action with music-hall song and dance routines while Nigel Hess’s music catchingly echoes Gilbert and Sullivan’s Savoy operas.
There can be no definitive production of any Shakespeare play and, if Luscombe sacrifices much of the lyricism of the text, he amply compensates by extracting every luminous iota of its comic potential.
Maybe that is what our overcast times require. Runs until February 24, box office: rsc.org.uk