Back in June, I wrote an ecstatic if unconventional review of Salomé in which I imagined Wilde’s ghost sitting appreciatively in the front row. I like to imagine he lingered in Stratford long afterwards, if only to waft his decadent spirit over the RSC’s latest production of Twelth Night, set in an 1890s England suffused with aristocratic opulence and transgressive desire.
The many intricate sets are, naturally, so very pretty to look at (“To me, Beauty is the wonder of wonders… It is only shallow people who do not judge by appearances”) and Wilde’s taste for the exotic is pandered to in Dinita Gohil’s Viola, a petite Asian youth much lusted after, in her male guise, by Nicholas Bishop’s Orsino.
Shakespeare’s opening scene (which becomes the second in Luscombe’s rearrangement) sets the tone: we find ourselves in an exquisite, gold-domed art studio where a languorous Orsino paints a semi-naked model stretched provocatively across a chaise longue. More than a hint of Dorian Gray here. In the background a Noel Coward-esque Curio (Luke Latchman) plays the grand piano, thus prompting that famous opening line: “If music be the food of love, play on.”
There are a clutchful of accomplished comic performances. Michael Cochrane delivers a puny and pusillanimous Sir Andrew Aguecheek, bullied into submission by John Hodgkinson’s blustery, bellowing Sir Toby Belch. Kara Tointon, meanwhile, is quietly regal as Olivia, her professions of love to Viola brimming over like a fountain in her statuary-filled garden.
Adrian Edmondson: well, now. At first I didn’t recognise him. Pompous and sombre in his stiff black suit, shooting his colleagues down with icy stares, he is very much the Ebeneezer Scrooge of Olivia’s household. That counterfeit letter, however, planted by those upon whom he has poured so much contempt, transforms him utterly. Convinced that the countess he works for has the hots for him, he dons those famous yellow stockings, jounces across the stage, and beams insanely at his beloved, who runs terrified from the scene.
Here Edmondson’s anarchic genius is unleashed and the audience roar with laughter. Armed with a banjo and his bobbly hat, he bursts into a Gilbert and Sullivan parody, driving his song and dance shenanigans towards ever more absurd heights, while the conspirators watch on with incredulous dismay. Malvolio has morphed into a madman, and no actor can portray madness quite like Adrian Edmondson. No wonder they lock him up.
As the performance progresses it transports us ever closer in spirit to the West End. While Luscombe’s riot of sound and colour will prove popular with the tourist contingent, there is no doubt the play’s subtler, more poignant elements have been well and truly crowded out. Those Chekhovian notes of melancholy and mortality, for example, barely rise above the clamour. This is a feast of a production, and Edmonson gives us a meaty Malvolio, but sometimes to eat less is to savour more.
Twelfth Night is at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford Upon Avon, until February 24th. For more details, click here.