9 February, 2009Issue 8.3EuropeMusicThe ArtsTheatre

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Joshua Billings

William Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night
Donmar West End
Directed by Michael Grandage
Running until 7 March 2009


Donmar West End’s production of Twelfth Night aspires to the condition of music, but never finds the right pitch. A string quartet’s angry chord brings Orsino, tormented by his unrequited love for the countess Olivia, on stage. It is a brutal blast of sound, overwhelming any hint of tenderness. This music might feed murderous rages, but it is certainly not “the food of love”. Viola, shipwrecked on a strange island, misses her music too, almost shouting her way through some of Shakespeare’s saddest, most melodious words: “What should I do in Illyria? / My brother he is in Elysium.” Most offensive of all, though, are the songs. The clown Feste begins well enough, accompanying himself on the guitar. Without warning, though, a chorus of strings enters, piped in through the sound system, utterly obliterating the beautiful simplicity of a single voice and instrument.

These all may seem trivial points against Michael Grandage’s extravagantly praised production. But they are symptomatic of a staging deaf to subtlety and nuance, one that plays Shakespeare’s comedy at a constant and unremitting fortissimo. The central performances are almost uniformly overwrought, and there is little in the direction that suggests a deeper understanding of the play’s dynamics. The production as a whole falls prey to some lamentable fashions in West End theatre: bland design, unimaginative direction and, most disappointingly, central performances that rely more on technique than psychological acuity.

Like Grandage’s first production of the Donmar West End season, which showcased Kenneth Branagh as Chekhov’s Ivanov, the staging of Twelfth Night is little more than a star vehicle. Sir Derek Jacobi has a grand old time as the inflated butler Malvolio, giving a master class in pomposity to match Branagh’s earlier one in states of despair. Jacobi is extremely funny, as Branagh was extremely bleak. However, both performances showcase far more their virtuosity as actors than their sensitivity to character. The challenges of the roles are quite different, but both require moments of extreme rawness to rise above stereotype. For all their extraordinary talents, neither Branagh nor Jacobi can quite conjure the depths. As a consequence, they seem like great actors in less-than-great roles.

Ivanov allows an actor many moments of high drama, but the young Chekhov’s lines do not live up to the despair of the character. Between Ivanov’s words and actions there is a gap that Branagh’s performance, very much in the classical vein of language-driven theatre, elided. The play Ivanov can be powerful and even shattering, but only when we feel the character’s failure of communication acutely. The words came too easily to Branagh (this may be partly the fault of Tom Stoppard’s immensely fluid translation); the character was too composed, too heroic. His finest moment was the one when speech failed, an extended silence as he slumped to the ground in desperation. When Branagh opened his mouth, though, it was impossible to forget that he is one of the stage’s greatest speakers. I left the theatre impressed, but not moved.

Malvolio, however, should be a star turn, as Ivanov should not. Jacobi, by no means as showy an actor as Branagh, lends the role an appropriately heroic silliness. The physicality is perfectly calibrated to Malvolio’s pompous, declamatory speech, which Jacobi delivers as if he were chewing the scenery as Macbeth or Hamlet. Indeed, he seems to be on autopilot, enjoying his romp too much to bring out more in the character than the obvious. This is particularly frustrating in the scene where Malvolio’s makes his final appearance after being humiliated, imprisoned, and nearly driven mad by a prank gone out of control. The moment, which can be a stinging indictment of the lovers’ giddy world turned upside-down, is for Jacobi another chance to go over the top. In his angry cadenza, he misses Malvolio’s extraordinary silence, the way language fails him utterly in responding to the malicious trick. “I’ll be revenged on the whole pack of you” is of a different register from the rest of Malvolio’s speech: visceral and angry, after all pretence. It is neither heroic nor anti-heroic; it is merely deflated. But Jacobi has not stopped being a star, and his delivery remains in the high style; he does not sink to the occasion.

Perhaps due to Jacobi’s magnetism, the central love triangle seems largely forgotten, and with it, the romance of the play. Though many reviewers have praised the Viola of Victoria Hamilton, I found her performance undynamic. As she finds herself dressed as a boy, in love with her employer Orsino, and wooing Olivia on his behalf (who in turn falls for the her/him), we do not feel the humor of the situation, only its confusion. Indira Varma’s Olivia displays a cold intellect when resisting advances, but fails to conjure the vulnerability of her own passion. As Orsino, Mark Bonnar gets no better after the misjudged entrance; he remains at a high pitch of self-regard throughout, too much a bore to be convincing as a lover. Where the play demands a delicate three-way choreography of desire and frustration, none seems very attentive to what the others are doing. As a result, we see isolated performances, never an ensemble.

The romantic leads could not be more of a contrast to the raucous assemblage of nobles and domestics that torment Malvolio and provide the play’s low comedy: an appropriately hulking Andrew Aguecheek from Guy Henry, Zubin Varla’s acrobatic, ethereal Feste; best of all, the couple of Ron Cook’s Sir Toby and Samantha Spiro’s Maria has never been quite so tender. The quartet’s scenes capture the joyful dance music of Shakespeare’s text, making their humiliation of Malvolio all the more dissonant. They prove such a centering force for the production that the main love triangle seems marginal in comparison (this is partly Shakespeare’s fault, admittedly—the play’s noble characters are singularly boring). We want to remain with Jacobi and his antagonists below stairs.

The unevenness, perhaps, was to be expected. The poster for the season gave it away: it shows four famous faces (still to come are Judi Dench and Jude Law) staring out at us, dressed in modish black. The publicity for the individual plays again focuses on the lead’s face, without costume or context. We come to see the actors, not the characters; the players, not the play.

This ethos seems to have penetrated the design. Grandage’s productions have been calibrated perfectly so as not to draw attention to themselves. They are attractive but unatmospheric: monolithic, multi-purpose sets; sharp, unobtrusive costumes; most of the visual drama comes from overly dark chiaroscuro lighting. Exchanges are lively and fast-paced—too fast either for Stoppard’s Chekhov or Shakespeare’s language. Dialogue seems designed to get us on, as quickly as possible, to the star’s next moment.

There is nothing wrong with showcasing great actors, and we should be grateful to have Branagh and Jacobi on the London stage when they could be engaged in far more lucrative and less taxing projects. But the problem is that the productions have abdicated any more ambitious goals. Grandage’s direction sterilizes the vodka-soaked desperation of Ivanov’s characters, just as it reduces the intricate counterpoint of Twelfth Night to monotone. These productions ultimately have the effect of dwarfing their stars, doing an injustice to playwright, play and player.

Star-craziness, of course, is not limited to the Donmar. Everywhere one looks in London theatre these days, it is clear that stars sell. Perhaps they are the only way to sell serious, classic theatre (think of Ian McKellen in Lear, Ralph Fiennes in Oedipus, or David Tennant in Hamlet). There is nothing wrong with such productions, but the involvement of big names only increases the burden for a staging to bring something unexpected. The familiarity of player and play creates an even greater need for a director to imagine the work freshly, and for actors to push beyond their comfort zones. Star-driven shows are valuable for the chance to see well-known faces in new masks. They should challenge audience and actor by exploring unexpected dimensions of a familiar presence. As Branagh demonstrated (if all too briefly), this means playing the music of silence.

Joshua Billings is writing his doctoral dissertation on the theory of tragedy in Germany around 1800 at Merton College, Oxford.