This was Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, streamed live from the stage of the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford.
Director Christopher Luscombe has shipwrecked the twins Viola and Sebastian, who are from India, on the shores of late nineteenth century England. Each believes the other dead and the vulnerable Viola disguises herself as a man, Cesario, to enter the service of Orsino.
A perfect love triangle is soon established: Orsino loves Olivia, who falls for Cesario, who loves Orsino.
That sexual ambivalence is a major theme of the production is clear from our first sight of Orsino, whose silk gown hangs open to reveal his bare-chest. In his opulent candle-lit studio he’s affecting to paint a nude young male as a huntsman lounging on a chaise longue with a Cupid-like bow, hookah nearby, while a third young man plays Chopin at the piano.
Later in the same den Orsino and Cesario (whom he still believes to be male) are tantalisingly pulled with a mixture of attraction and confusion into a kiss which drew a little gasp of surprise from the audience around me. It comes almost as a shock to see Orsino in a conventional morning suit as we approach the denouement.
Meanwhile Antonio, who had rescued Sebastian, expresses a love for him which is clearly sexual. We know this because he dresses like a dandified aesthete and wears a green carnation, like Oscar Wilde.
Back in the world of binary sexuality, Olivia’s uncle Sir Toby Belch and his friend Sir Andrew Aguecheek, with help from the servants, are plotting the come-uppance of pompously pious steward Malvolio.
These scenes are played to perfection, but again not without surprises.
Vivien Parry plays Maria with dramatic comic touches and a vicious sense of purpose. And Adrian Edmondson, punk hair and piercings of Vyvyan in the Young Ones having given way to wispy beard, milks the pathos of Malvolio’s faux lunacy with edgy humour.
Edmondson does a barnstorming turn in his cross-gartered yellow stockings, strumming his mandolin. The awestruck faces of the household staff watching in the doorway can only have been outdone by the Festival Centre audience enjoying it face-on.
The music is one of the many pleasures of the production. Lavishly decorated Victorian sets, from opulent townhouse to rural orangery with statuary and fountain (via railway station booking lounge) provide sumptuous backdrops for Shakespeare’s delightful songs. We hear – and watch them danced – as lively pastiches of Gilbert and Sullivan and the music hall.
Set a century later and I suspect music director John Woolf would have been tempted to have fun with Blur’s Girls who are Boys who like Boys to be Girls.
By John Hargreaves