Royal Shakespeare Theatre
Maybe it’s because Shakespeare chose Illyria as the setting for his play – part of the western Balkans in the time of classical antiquity – a place with no particular resonances either for an Elizabethan/Jacobean audience or for us, particularly when Sebastian and Antonio are staying at a hostelry at the Elephant just down the road from Bankside in London – that directors and designers have chosen to set the plays anywhere they like. Most of those I have seen have been decorative. But the best productions choose somewhere which enriches the text rather than just decorates it. I’m thinking particularly of the RSC production about thirty years ago which set the play in Stratford and made the entertainer Feste’s home ‘hard by the church’ New Place, setting off a mass of possible biographical allusions in the play. But I haven’t seen many productions like that.
Director Christopher Luscombe and designer Simon Higlett have chosen the 1890s for their production, maybe fortuitously but particularly appropriately timed because of the current Oscar Wilde season at the Vaudeville theatre in London. The sometimes dodgy sexual and gender issues in the play are seen in a new light. Orsino (Nicholas Bishop) is not the usual Chattertonian melancholic but a dandy about town who really doesn’t care very much what gender his love object is. established right at the beginning with his kissing Valentine. Olivia (Kara Tointon) indulges herself in fashionable Victorian prolonged mourning but is quite open to the attraction of a bit of eye candy. All this is set against the twin stuff. Of course it was obvious that after Hamnet’s death Shakespeare was always reminded of Hamnet when he saw Judith; maybe that’s why he doesn’t appear to have liked her very much. In their normal clothes Viola (a spirited and rather splendid Cesario played by Dinita Gohil) and Sebastian (Esh Alladi) are dressed identically and we can begin to understand why people can’t tell which is which when we realise that the great English unwashed say that all Chinese people look the same or that the Chinese call white Westerners ‘big noses’ because they all look the same. Further use is made of the 1890s by the references to Queen Victoria’s patronage of Abdul Karim, mirrored by Olivia’s patronage of Feste (and, possibly Queen Elizabeth’s and later King James’s patronage of Shakespeare). There is an aesthetic exoticism about the households of both Olivia and Orsino which unifies the setting. The production is a rich presentation of ideas which a twenty-first century can engage with.
That is not to say that the setting solves all the problems in the play. Antonio’s misery and disillusionment at the end of the play picks up on the complex sexual dynamics in the play but (and maybe this is a costuming issue) doesn’t quite convince that he is a pirate or that he belongs in the 1890s. And I didn’t see how Sir Toby or Sir Andrew were from the 1890s either. I did get Malvolio, though. Adrian Edmondson gives him a rather sinister and unpleasant edge, familiar both in Shakespeare’s dealings in the theatre world of the 1590s and Oscar Wilde’s encounters three hundred years later.
It took a second viewing of the production for me to realise that this is very much a contemporary, twenty-first century interpretation of the play, showing that where sexual attraction, and even love, are concerned, gender is not a significant issue. So Orsino can give Cesario a passionate kiss while sending ‘him’ to woo Olivia. Olivia can fall for Cesario while ‘he’ is pretending to be Orsino’s emissary. Olivia can fall for and marry Sebastian as it doesn’t matter what gender he is and whether he is really male or just masquerading as male. Orsino loves Cesario anyway so it doesn’t make any difference at all when ‘he’ turns out to be female.
Of course there are casualties of all this. The older generation, with more conventional views of love and marriage – Sir Andrew’s (Michael Cochrane) that they can be bought, Sir Toby’s (John Hodgkinson) that they are a reward for misdeeds and favours done, Antonio’s (Giles Taylor) that a gay relationship is all that counts, Malvolio’s that he can overreach his status and class – all suffer because they have not been able to enter this new world, characterised on one hand by metrosexuality, on the second hand by the covert bisexuality of the 1890s and on the third hand (eh?) by the hidden and unspoken sexuality of Elizabethan and Jacobean England..
Maybe this is all too much about ideas. What about production values?
This is the first production I have seen where I have been able to believe that Viola and Sebastian could be mistaken for each other. They are dressed the same and to a considerable degree mirror each other’s postures and gestures.
Simon Higlett’s design is outstanding and beautiful to look at. The exotic and opulent cushions, furnishings and pre-Raphaelitish paintings in Orsino’s establishment give a clear indication of the aesthetic decadence of the 1890s while evoking in the interior of Leighton House. The painting being done by Orsino at the beginning is very similar to one of Linley Sambourne’s photographs, though here the model is the dishy Tom Byrne rather than Sambourne’s servant. Feste, described in the programme’s dramatis personae as Olivia’s munshi, wears Asian/Middle Eastern costume, linking him in terms of ethnicity and culture with Viola and Sebastian and therefore providing a kind of prolepsis of the Olivia/Viola/Cesario/Sebastion plot. A railway station entrance hall establishes the idea of a journey, sets period and gives a new and interesting geographical dimension to the distance between Orsino’s and Olivia’s courts. The Gilbert and Sullivan style patter song at the end frames the whole play in the 1890s. Olivia’s garden provides the setting for the best comedy in the play – Sir Andrew, Sir Toby and Fabria’s spying on Malvolio being statues behind a fountain – at the same time as providing ideas about Malvolio’s blind self-absorbtion and the gullers’ ridiculous posturing.
Luscombe’s use of short pauses and caesuras, particularly in his presentation of Viola, made me listen afresh, and his decisions about when characters would address the audience rather than each other drew attention to a range of details and phrases often skated by.
This production is shaped with changing tones which create the effect of an exquisite piece of music.This rich production is not only worth seeing. It is worth seeing more than once. Splendid.