It is not every day you see Sir Derek Jacobi in yellow stockings, but you can right now at the Wyndham’s theatre as he plays Malvolio in the second production in the Donmar Warehouse’s West End season, Twelfth Night.
In Michael Grandage’s production of Shakespeare’s romantic comedy, Christopher Oram’s simple set and Neil Austin’s lighting evoke the sandy shores of Illyria, where shipwrecked twins Viola and Sebastian, each believing the other to have drowned, make their way in a Shakespearean world of disguise and comedic misunderstanding.
Victoria Hamilton’s Viola is madly in love with Illyria’s ruler, the Duke Orsino, and disguises herself as a boy in order to serve him. But Mark Bonnar’s Duke harbours a desperate love for the vain Olivia, who is in mourning for her dead brother and shuns Orsino’s declarations of love. When Viola, going by the name of Cesario, arrives at Olivia’s place with yet another love entreaty from the Duke, Olivia’s heart goes all a-flutter for the boy with the surprisingly high voice.
Indira Varma as Olivia segues amusingly from self-indulgent, haughty lady-of-the-manor to amorous predator, lusting without shame for the young boy, much to the alarm of Hamilton’s Viola/Cesario. When Sebastian arrives on the island, wearing strangely similar attire to his twin sister’s male disguise, he gets more than he bargained for.
While that love triangle plays out, so Olivia’s lady-in-waiting Maria and her pair of collaborators plot to embarrass the austere, pompous Malvolio, who serves the house with a self-important disdain. Deciding to bring him down a peg or two, Maria teams up with the louche, drunken Sir Toby Belch and the gauche Sir Andrew Aguecheek to devise a way to make Malvolio believe that his lady, Olivia, is in love with him. Cue the long yellow socks and an acting lesson in facial expressions as Jacobi’s Malvolio attempts to practise the art of smiling, something which has so far eluded him.
Grandage’s production milks the humour of this scene to the full, with some good visual gags as the trio hide behind a wind-breaker on the beach to watch their set-up of Malvolio unfold. And in this production Andrew Aguecheek really is as tall as the text says – Guy Henry’s elongated frame contrasts with Ron Cook’s short, round Toby Belch and the pair make an obvious, if reluctant, comedy double act. However, why Maria would have amorous intentions towards the inebriated Belch – who lives up to his name at least once – is anyone’s guess.
In this light-hearted production there is little sadness in a plot that sees most of the characters achieve their heart’s desire – except, perhaps, for the ambiguous Antonio, Sebastian’s friend and servant – and thanks to Austin’s soft-focused lighting, they even get to walk off into the sunset.