August 1966: Plays and Players

All Styles Go

An heroic Sir Toby, a grimly disenchanted Feste, a Snudge-like Malvolio, and a Viola who strides boyfully around Illyria with the bemusement of a twentieth-century Alice in a medieval rabbit warren: these are the ingredients of Clifford Williams' new production of Twelfth Night at Stratford-upon-Avon. Shakespeare's alternative title for Twelfth Night was What You Will: which Mr Williams has evidently taken as a message personally intended for himself. It is not that he mixes his styles 0 at least not any more than Shakespeare did in inventing a fairyland with back-streets: what he has done is not elect for any style in particular...certainly insofar as ensemble acting is concerned. An ill-assorted bunch of fools, decadents, swingers, melancholics, time-servers and transvestites is dropped into the deep end to sink or swim in defiance not only of dramatic unity but of the guiding principles of the Royal Shakespeare Company. The immorality of it all is that the mixture succeeds. Apart from the very occasional dull patch, the evening is an enchantment.

Illyria is England as seen through the eyes of a happy drunkard: or, rather, two drunkards - one above the stairs, the other in the kitchen. (Despite the stage instruction which reads 'A room in Olivia's house', I have always imagined the Belch-Aguecheek-Maria scenes as happening deep in the sunless bowels of the house, under beamed ceilings and with the firelight glinting on pewter; everything here should be as darkly brown as ale.) Sally Jacobs' setting was most unEnglish: a coolly austere row of Roman arches which combined the merits of elegance and utility, and - more important - acted as a drawstring, so that the wildly incompatible elements of the play were united in a kind of shotgun marriage, The only real incongruity was that the musicians, although delightfully placed on what looked like the upper level of the aqueduct at Tarragona, found themselves pressed into service as the town band, given to playing in all the local stately homes in their spare time. No ale-brown corners here; but the set, if not atmospheric, was one of the things that saved Mr Williams' Bacon.

There were some magnificent touches: Sir Andrew's ecstatic dance, for example, which ended when he discovered that he was somehow partnering the enraged Malvolio. And when Maria says of Malvolio: '...he will come to her in yellow stockings, and 'tis a colour she abhors', everyone looked dorrowfully at Aguecheek, who at that moment realised that he had been fruitlessly wooing Olivia while dressed from head to foot in vilest yellow. Somehow, most of the onnovations seemed to concern Sir Andrew, who was beautifully played by David Warner as a sheep that had been overlooked at slaughter-time. It is impossible to assess Mr Warner's performance without considering Brewster Mason's Sir Toby and Patsy Byrne's Maria. Mr Mason unaccountably chose to play Sir Toby as a nobleman first and a drunkard second. The fact is that, as suggested by his name, Belch is a malicious old swine, as illiterate as most of the nobility were in Shakespeare's day and long afterwards. Mr Mason plays him like Sir Francis Drake between voyages...far too knightly and too British to provide any sort of comic contrast with Mr Warner's visiting Englishmean. And Miss Byrne's Maria was over-familiar: we seem to have seen this performance from Miss Byrne before; and perhaps it is time for the RSC to start casting her against type. In the low-comedy scenes it was left to Mr Williams' inventiveness, to Mr Warner and to Ian Holm's Malvolio to get the laughs.

Mr Holm - whether revealed mercilessly in hair-curlers, paralysed by vicious cross-gartering or convulsing us with a phoney-genteel accent which Paul Scofield's government inspector would have envied - was magnificent. This Malvolio was not so far removed from the joyless little time-server who yelps for silence in a public house and is savagely beaten up, simply becasue his tone of voice begged for it. Mr Holm managed to be hateful, comic and tragic all at once, which is quite a feat. Norman Rodway as Feste gave us a man halfway out of a job. In his battle between expediency and principle, he almost taunts Olivia into dismissing him. His jokes are double-edged; he is saying to the observes: 'See how uncaring I am,' and, to Olivia: 'See how my humour suits your sadness'. Mr Rodway's performance is geared toward his dungeon scene with Malvolio: an acrid sequence which strikes a proper balance for the whole production. It is a nastily excellent piece of work, which began shakily as if Mr Rodway had temporarily forgotten just how fine an actor he is.

Then there was Diana Rigg as Viola. Nearly all of the critics have taken pleasure in reminding us that since Miss Rigg has played in more ephemeral entertainment than Twelfth Night her performance here must be accorded the same indulgence as that shown to Samuel Johnson's walking dog. It is true that she is a modern Viola, just as Ian Holm has given us a modern Hentry V. And so what? If her tightly-tailored behind is not that of a pageboy, Miss Rigg is all too comically aware of the fact. She speaks verse beautifully, precisely and with intelligence, and was far too good for the gloomy Orsino: She should have gone off with Malvolio and taught him a few songs and how to drink ale. Alan Howard's Orsino was fine, considering how dull the part is; as Olivia, Estelle Kohler showed plenty of life, but lacked polish; while there was a nicely dumbfounded Antonio from Godfrey Quigley. Guy Woolfenden's musical settings were splendid, as always.

The critics have complained that this production is variously too languorous, too harsh, too downbeat, too leisurely and too knockabout (one who apparently can't count described the setting as consisting of four arches). The play does, in fact, contain all these alleged shortcomings: they were in it when Shakespeare wrote it.If Mr Williams deserves criticism it is not for mixing his styles, but for failing to make palatable the mixture that was there to begin with. In the last analysis, what Shakespeare wrote was a superb piece of entertainment; and this, or very nearly, is what Mr William, his cast, musicians and designer have given us.

Copyright | Disclaimer | Sitemap | Contact us at


News Archives


Miscellaneous Reviews Rachael


Audio Clips

Video Clips