December 26, 2008

Twelfth Night, Wyndham Theatre

3 stars

Pastures New for Jacobi

As part of the Donmar’s expansion into the West End, they are featuring a theatrical great with each production. Dame Judi Dench will be appearing in Madame De Sade next year, while Jude Law will be taking on the part of Hamlet following his success in the Donmar’s Othello. Currently, Derek Jacobi is appearing as the “notoriously abused” villain Malvolio in Twelfth Night. Yet, for all the hype that has surrounded his appearance, Jacobi as Malvolio, even kitted out in sunshine-yellow garters and short shorts, left me cold.

To try to shield Shakespeare’s characters from being over-acted is like trying to protect a pig from mud – it is the territory from which they originated – and there is little doubt that an Elizabeth audience enjoyed, and indeed went to see, over-the-top acting. But, in an otherwise sensitive and nuanced production of Twelfth Night directed by Michael Grandage, the character of Malvolio once again has been made into a caricature. Playing him as a pompous, self-absorbed and sullen butler, Jacobi revels in the alliterative and floral language that Shakespeare has allocated Malvolio. Yet often he does so at the expense of pace and believability, seeming to be showcasing his grasp of diction and projection more than his understanding of the character. As Malvolio reads the instruction to smile on the forged note supposedly from Olivia, Jacobi stands on the stage for a good few minutes, with a constipated expression, trying to contort his face into a smile. Then when he finally appears before Olivia in his garish garters, this Malvolio is so unlike his previous self, as he airs his bare thigh with great fervour and gyrates his hips with a randy expression, that we do not feel embarrassed at the gross misunderstanding. Jacobi’s final scene as he is let out of his cell to utter his words of revenge is incredibly poignant, but introduces us to yet another Malvolio, which seems to have come, not out of the ones of the first or second act, but plucked from somewhere totally new.

It is Ron Cook and Guy Henry who provide the real laughs of the evening as the hedonists Sir Toby Belch and Sir Andrew Aguecheek. Physical opposites, they are like drunks who are beyond drunkenness in their throwaway gestures and the sentimental expressions that flit across their faces at points. Indiri Varma is also excellent as a haughty, swan-like, but devilishly fun Olivia, for whom Viola (Victoria Hamilton) can reasonably harbour a fierce jealousy. Hamilton gives the performance of the night, however, in her gentle presentation of Viola, the accidental protagonist, who simply finds herself in every situation and must exist concealing a fierce sexual passion and her true identity.

Grandage’s setting of what appears to be the French Riviera in the 1930s is well suited to the frivolity that ensues throughout, and Feste’s hauntingly beautiful musical interludes (magnificently sung by Zubin Varla) tie in with the relaxed and dreamy nature of this warm holiday spot. Like the Riviera sunshine, the production feels bright, clear, and confident in its gentleness. Just sometimes I wish it would probe a little further into new territory and go a bit deeper than the surface with which I feel this production is largely concerned.

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