A Tale of Two Halves: A Review of Twelfth Night

by Chloe Whitehead

Five English students, a medic and some wholesome Shakespeare – a day out made in heaven? We thought so.

On a rainy Thursday in January we went to see Twelfth Night at the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford-upon-Avon, and on the whole witnessed a brilliant performance. Despite being an English student, I’d actually never seen Shakespeare at the theatre, and my first experience was not disappointing.

The RSC’s Twelfth Night – directed by Christopher Luscombe – breathes and exudes dissonance. Dissonant identities, romances and professional relationships permeate every aspect of this production. For those of you unaware of the plot of Twelfth Night, here’s a quick summary (minus huge spoilers): shipwrecked, alone, and grieving for her supposedly dead twin brother on the shores of the foreign land Illyria, Viola becomes a servant of the dashing Duke Orsino. Yet to do so she must dress as a man and adopt the name Cesario, resulting in a complicated double life. Orsino is in love with the beautiful yet elusive Olivia, a guarded noblewoman in prolonged mourning. But when Cesario travels to Olivia’s country mansion to woo her on the Duke’s behalf, Olivia instead falls in love with Cesario, unaware she is the disguised Viola.

An intricate – and often humorous – love triangle ensues, heightened further when Cesario falls in love with the debonair, unaware Duke. This is paralleled by the tension existing between Malvolio – Olivia’s steward – and her other employees, as well as the fortunes of the mysterious Sebastian, a young man remarkably resembling Viola and mourning his twin sister following a tragic shipwreck…

Ingeniously, the RSC have decided to stage this version of the production in a late-Victorian context, giving it a relatively colonial feel as the two ‘outsiders’ – Viola and Sebastian, who are thrust into Illyrian society – are dressed in traditional Indian costumes. In fact, all characters were impeccably well dressed, from uptight Victorian gentlemen to the luxuriously decadent dandy; Karen Large, the costume supervisor, deserves considerable credit for her creations.

Yet it was also the incredibly high standard of acting that allowed the costumes to become part of the world of Shakespeare. Nicholas Bishop as Orsino was as witty, self-centred and handsome as he should be, and Kara Tointon as Olivia gave a wonderful performance as the typical Victorian noblewoman. Dinita Gohil and Esh Alladi (as Viola and Sebastian respectively) put forward admirably authentic character portrayals, though it was certainly John Hodgkinson and Michael Cochrane as Olivia’s hilariously eccentric uncle and deluded suitor that really stole the show. The play is, ultimately, a comedy, and they provided excellently timed comic relief that displayed their clear wealth of theatrical experience.

The actors’ interaction with the set was equally good, though its use for comic purposes occasionally risked being a little too slapstick. Designer Simon Higlett created plentifully arranged sets that often provided an interesting background to the main plot, from a railway station, to polished country house gardens, to the intimacy of Orsino’s bedroom.

Unexpectedly (for me at least) the play was remarkably musical, containing short instrumental motifs between scenes and a charming (albeit cheesy) dance number at the end. Interestingly the music was played live, though the orchestra was unseen by the audience and only visible through a small monitor from certain angles (one of which my seat occupied). Composer Nigel Hess and Music Director John Woolf did, however, produce notable compositions that enriched the performance.

Although the play began in darkness, with merely an eerie lantern to illuminate the stage, the production ensured an entertaining and enlightening evening showcasing the complex society of Illyria, and indeed of all humanity. There was also, to a degree, a lack of resolution by the performance’s end, leaving numerous ambiguities in the manner Shakespeare likely intended. The inherent dissonance of identity remained the central and lasting intrigue.

Considering that the entire trip – performance, transport, and visit to the RSC’s accompanying Shakespeare exhibition – cost around £20, it was a brilliant few hours outside the ‘Oxford bubble’. The RSC runs these cheap trips specifically aimed at students for numerous performances throughout the year, and I would highly recommend booking one for a short break from the madness.

Though the performance was at times overly cheesy and a little slow, it was ultimately a commendable show by cast and crew alike. The too-often dissonant spheres of academia and pleasure fused nicely in this dramatic outing, proving Shakespeare (once again) right: If music (or indeed theatre) be the food of love, play on.

The Poor Print

The Oriel College Newspaper. Run by students, with contributions from the JCR, MCR, and SCR & Staff. Current Executive Editors: Tom Davy, Joanna Engle and Chris Hill

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