Twelfth Night -- Theater Review

Nobby Clark
A legendary father and a movie star daughter combine to make Shakespeare’s frolic a pleasure.

LONDON — British stage legend Peter Hall celebrates his 80th birthday by directing his movie star daughter Rebecca Hall in a lyrical and musical production of Shakespeare’s gender-bending comedy "Twelfth Night." It shows his touch is as deft as ever.

Anthony Ward’s sumptuous design sets the scene with a golden canopy that curves above the stage and gently alights upon it with scattered cushions, some light screens and a row of miniature houses at the back to suggest a seaside town in some jolly place.

Clad in brilliantly colored period costumes and accompanied by Mick Sands’ sprightly music for cello, mandola and flutes, the players engage one other like sure-footed dancers, and the play’s insightful wit is given full measure.

As the duke Orsino, Marton Csokas manages well the familiar and daunting opening lines, “If music be the food of love, play on,” and soon, there in a bright red man’s costume, is Rebecca Hall (Vicky Cristina Barcelona, The Town) as Viola, safe from a shipwreck but fearful that twin brother Sebastian has been lost at sea.

In her debut at the National Theatre, Hall captures with confidence Viola’s twin emotions as she enters Orsino’s court, confident in her ability to remain incognito but afraid of betraying that she is not a eunuch named Cesario. Later, when Viola’s disguise frustrates her true feelings, the tall, slim actress portrays her desire to display her femininity with modern grit and simplicity.

As Viola falls for the duke, Orsino pines only for the lovely Olivia (Amanda Drew), and director Hall’s remarkably keen eye for fine detail is revealed in a scene in which Orsino lies back with his head on the kneeling and disguised Viola’s legs as he proclaims his love. The action is elsewhere, but like a close-up in a movie, the eye goes to Viola’s elegant fingers as she is unable to resist caressing Orsino’s forehead.

The duke sends Cesario to woo her on his behalf, whereupon Olivia promptly falls in love with the young man who is really a woman. Drew plays Olivia as a haughty beauty quite undone by the strength of her feelings for the one she thinks is a mere boy, and when the truth comes out, she appears to be amused as well as shocked by the possible permutations.

Meanwhile, Shakespeare has much frivolity to offer as Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Charles Edwards) arrives also to woo Olivia and conspires with the drunken Sir Toby Belch (Simon Callow) to thwart similar aspirations held by Olivia’s pious steward Malvolio (Simon Paisley Day).

Callow (Four Weddings and a Funeral) is an accomplished scene-stealer, and his Sir Toby is suitably loud and full of bluster, but it is Edwards who steals a march with a performance that is hilarious and touching as the dimwitted Aguecheek. His manner of determined self-interest let down by limited intellect and bad timing is a constant delight, and yet the vulnerability of his quiet aside, “I was adored once,” is sad.

Finty Williams catches the eye too as Olivia’s brazen and flirtatious maid Maria, and Paisley Day adds a chilling bite of nastiness as the pompous, tormented Malvolio. And David Ryall threads a skein of wisdom throughout the proceedings as the fool Feste, observing human folly and frailty with tolerance and good humor.

Twelfth Night was written around 1600, and Peter Hall first directed it at the Oxford Playhouse in 1954. But in this joyful production, it seems fresh as a daisy.

Venue: National Theatre, London (through March 2)
Cast: Rebecca Hall, Simon Callow, David Ryall, Amanda Drew, Charles Edwards, Finty Williams, Simon Paisley Day
Playwright: William Shakespeare
Director: Peter Hall
Set and costume designer: Anthony Ward
Lighting designer: Peter Mumford
Sound designer: Gregory Clarke
Music: Mick Sands