An antiquated slam-door lift, a revolving door, a scattering of battered lobby sofas: David Farr’s Twelfth Night – the second instalment in the RSC’s Shipwreck Trilogy – is set in a hotel, which makes a superficial sense: this is a place where the people of the world wash up and interact, a place of transience and displacement. Jon Bausor’s set has the trappings of 1920s New York establishment, a touch of faded art deco glamour, but everything is askew and decaying; water laps at the floorboards, a bed rests near vertically against the back wall – it is as if a storm has raged through the place.
It’s an intriguing thematic canvas but its potential is never fully exploited – though that lift gets a good work out. Farr’s production is, instead, one of broad laughs and pratfalls. Belch and co indulge in the obligatory drunken carousing – complete with disco lights – and Kirsty Bushell’s rather manic Olivia soon trades in her veil and her mantle of mourning for more earthly pleasures.
In the midst of all this, Jonathan Slinger gives a deliciously scene-eating turn as Malvolio. He is the very picture of buttoned up pomposity, his pale hair slicked to his skull, every follicle regimented, his nose held permanently aloft, his gaze withering. A mixture of the monkish and the managerial, he is officious with his clipboard, part Hitler youth, part snooty otter. He’s the type of man who wears a corporate name badge at all times, even on his dressing gown. When he emerges on stage lavishly cross-gartered (after descending in the rickety lift), he sweeps backs his blazer with a flourish to reveal the kind of outfit only available from specialist retailers before pursuing Olivia around the stage with creepy insistence. It’s a cheap scene in many ways, a heavy-handed device, but one which Slinger manages to make psychologically plausible – and very, very funny.
The trouble with his performance is that it leaves the rest of the production looking flat and patchy. Emily Taaffe is rather underpowered as Viola and Farr oddly chooses to make little of the obvious physical mismatch between her and her ‘twin’, Stephen Hagan’s Sebastian. Jonathan McGuinness’ strangely uncharismatic Orsino also fades into the background and there’s little sense of attraction between him and Viola; when he claims her at the end it feels like a bit of an afterthought. Bruce MacKinnon is a far more endearing presence, playing Aguecheek as a Tim Nice But Dim type, posh and gangly with wide, kind eyes and a shock of blonde hair. Kevin McMonagle’s melancholy Feste handles the songs well – the music has been inventively reworked by Adem Ilhan – but seems less comfortable at other times, an old school comedian out of time and given to mumbling.
Though there are individual comic scenes that really work on their own terms, the production feels tonally inconsistent and the relocation to this dilapidated hotel world thematically superfluous. Slinger’s nuanced, exposing, and often hilarious performance as Malvolio would stand out in any production, but here – where everyone else seems to be drawn in the broadest of lines – he towers.