“What country, friends, is this?” You might well ask.
In the Royal Shakespeare Company’s new production of Twelfth Night the opening line is delivered by Viola/Cesario, played by Dinita Gohill, in gorgeous Indian get-up, and when we glimpse Esh Alladi as her twin, Sebastian, and Beruce Khan as a turban-topped Feste, you wonder whether director Christopher Luscombe has set Shakespeare’s melancholy comedy in Wembley, next door to “The Kumars at Number 42.” (This award-winning, always hilarious British TV sit-com about an Indian family in London ran to seven series, though it never made it to the US.) Simon Higlett’s sets, though, are clearly late Victorian, so you begin to suspect that the relationship of Olivia (played with extraordinary serenity and poise by Kara Tointon) and Viola echoes that of the old queen Victoria and the Munshi, Abdul Karim. Indeed, in the programme, Feste is billed as Olivia’s “munshi.” ( I have to confess that I sometimes found his sing-song, pretend babu accent hard to decipher, my sole complaint on this score, except when some of the characters on the thrust stage spoke with their backs to me).
But then, the “creative team” has divided the play between the Town and the Country, mediated with extreme cleverness by railway stations. The first Town scene shows not the court of Duke Orsino, but his studio, where the “painter” (Nicholas Bishop) is working on a nearly nude likeness of his “muse,” Curio, while his “friend,” Valentine, tinkles on the keys of a piano. We think we’re now in Merchant-Ivory territory, but with explicit – indeed panting, erect nipple – homoeroticism.
Still later, when we meet the Country folk, a Belch who farts (John Hodgkinson, who is also capable of showing Sir Toby’s fangs) and Sir Andrew Aguecheek, clad in almost equally antisocial yellow argyle stockings (a superb performance by Michael Cochrane, whom I’m thrilled to see in the flesh, as he is Oliver Sterling of The Archers, the daily BBC Radio 4 drama to which my household is addicted), we have to wonder if we have perhaps strayed into the realm of the Victorian/Edwardian music hall. The housekeeper, Maria, who invents the plot and forges the letter that ruins Malvolio, is played with a vigorously Welsh accent by Vivien Parry. And the steward himself, with spectacular yellow stockings and cross-garters, is the magnificent Adrian Edmondson, who shows exactly how horrid the wrath of an ur-Puritan can be. (Norman Maclean, who taught me Shakespeare, maintained that Shakespeare’s politico-religious sympathies could be detected in the hammering he gives Malvolio.)
In the last act Antonio (Giles Taylor), Sebastian’s would-be lover, sports a green carnation, and it finally dawns on us that what we’re seeing is neither the TV Twelfth Night, nor the Merchant-Ivory, nor the music hall version, but the Gilbert & Sullivan makeover. It’s Patience, and suddenly everything seems greenery-yallery, Oscar Wilde/Walter Pater, D’Oyly Carte aesthetically camp – and we understand the wonderful letter scene in the garden with the over-endowed ruined statues, and the nipple-pinching pantomime of it all. “Please One and Please All” becomes a patter-song and “When that I was and a little tiny boy,/ With hey, ho, the wind and the rain,/A foolish thing was but a toy, / For the rain it raineth every day” is repeated as a fetching music hall number for the finale. It’s a glorious show, damned near superior pantomime (as, one could argue, it was for Shakespeare himself). It’s perfect Christmas fare, and, as it is on the sexy side, will do wonders for those who see it “live” in cinemas all over the world on Valentine’s Day, Wednesday 14 February. Even in this energetic romp of a production, Twelfth Night retains its edge and bite. The only thing missing is its quiet melancholy – which we don’t really need, as we have contemporary politics to supply plenty of that.