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Twelfth Night review at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford – ‘lavish and uplifting’

Michael Cochrane, Sarah Twomey, Adrian Edmondson and John Hodgkinson in Twelfth Night. Photo: Manuel Harlan Michael Cochrane, Sarah Twomey, Adrian Edmondson and John Hodgkinson in Twelfth Night. Photo: Manuel Harlan

In a year in which we’ve already seen Tamsin Greig as Malvolia in Simon Godwin’s Twelfth Night at the National Theatre and Emma Rice’s disco-drag staging of the play at Shakespeare’s Globe, Christopher Luscombe’s production for the Royal Shakespeare Company risked looking traditional and maybe even a little tame.

To an extent this is true, but Luscombe’s visually rich production also contains a number of intriguing ideas. Taking inspiration from the relationship between Queen Victoria and her Indian attendant Abdul Karim – a story explored by Tanika Gupta in her 2013 play for the RSC, The Empress – it casts Viola and Sebastian as Indian twins marooned in fin de siecle England. In a play in which people’s hidden feelings spill out in dramatic fashion, this makes a lot of sense.

Their otherness isolates them further. It makes them a source of fascination as well as an emotional catalyst for the people they encounter. Luscombe’s production is as alert to status as it is to sexuality and he cleverly addresses the various power imbalances in the characters’ relationships. He makes it clear that some of them have more choice than others, something that colours the play’s ‘happy’ ending.

It’s also an incredibly handsome production. It wouldn’t be a surprise if the next RSC set just consists of a pot plant and a park bench, because it has really splashed out here. Designer Simon Higlett, drawing inspiration from nearby Wightwick Manor, features opulent hothouses, wood-panelled halls, fountains and statuary.

Nicholas Bishop’s aesthete Orsino spends his days painting young men in classical poses in his candle-bedecked boudoir-studio while Antonio, who sports a green carnation in his buttonhole, liaises with Sebastian in a busy train station, complete with overhanging clock. The production makes it clear that Antonio’s feelings for Sebastian are those of a lover.

Luscombe, who also directed Much Ado About Nothing and Love’s Labour’s Lost for the RSC, knows how to execute a big comic set-piece. Adrian Edmondson’s severely bearded Malvolio bursts into song while clad in yellow stockings, a moment he milks for its pathos and comedy value. John Hodgkinson’s flatulent, thunder-lunged Toby Belch and Michael Cochrane’s quavering Andrew Aguecheek make a delightful double act. Kara Tointon’s Olivia is a little stiff to begin but she warms up.

Composer Nigel Hess has turned the play’s songs into full-blown musical numbers, sung with gusto, and given the whole thing a cinematic score. There’s a resentful edge to Beruce Khan’s Feste, another of the Indian retainers in Olivia’s household, who clearly bristles at his role as fool, forced to sing and dance on cue. There are flashes of anger in his performance.

The early scenes are a bit stodgy and the quality of the performances vary but this is a lavish production – one with West End intent – that balances its silliness and showiness with emotional nuance.

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Adrian Edmondson stars in a lavishly designed, music-filled and uplifting take on Shakespeare's comedy