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Twelfth Night

Evening Standard, 7th July 1992, Michael Arditti

Just as the key text for Shakespearean production in the Sixties and Seventies was Jan Kott’s ‘Shakespeare Our Contemporary’, that of the Eighties and Nineties has been John Russell Brown’s ‘Free Shakespeare’, a plea to liberate the Bard from the confines of directorial concept.

Many directors have espoused its cause, not least Peter Hall, but an equally significant role has been played by actors such as Judi Dench, Geraldine McEwan and Kenneth Branagh.

Now they are joined by Michael Pennington, once the tortured hero of Howard Brenton’s ‘Thirteenth Night’, who has retreated 24 hours and produced a truly delightful ‘Twelfth Night’.

As in most, though not all, actors’ productions there is an admirable concentration on the verse, which is lucid and well-paced throughout. The modern dress is unobtrusive and clarifies crucial distinctions without appearing anachronistic. The melancholy magic of Illyria is well caught by Claire Lyth’s trelliswork and tile set and Michael Bogdanov’s hard Adriatic lighting.

Like the design, the acting eschews bright hues and brings out the reality of the characters. Jenny Quayle is a mature Viola, more comfortable with the intensity of her passion than the absurdity of her position, and Michael Mueller an Orsino as over-whelmingly in love as Romeo.

Timothy Davies’ martinet Malvolio with his pinched face and parvenu officiousness is recognisably contemporary, first cousin to Mortimer’s Leslie Titnuss and Cleese’s Basil Fawlty. With the caesura in his “I’ve left Olivia – sleeping” he brilliantly suggests the murky mire of sexual fantasy which motivates puritanical repression – although his return for revenge is the production’s one false note.

Its finest achievement is Derek Smith’s Sir Toby, no drunken sot, an actor’s dry run for Falstaff, but at once bluff and sinister, a typically English bully, full of self-loathing when sober and ramrod dignity when drunk.

Shakespeare has now been restored to the school syllabus, and teachers who misguidedly believe that their pupils are happier with soap opera should head for Richmond post-haste. Indeed, anyone who spent last night with the BBC’s ‘Eldorado’ can be assured that there’s more sun, sea and sex, let alone poetry and humour, in the ESC’s ‘Twelfth Night’.

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