Casting, the old saw says, is everything. Having John Lithgow in splendidly imperious form as Malvolio in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s new production of “Twelfth Night” is certainly a boon — and the unusual choices don’t stop there. Director Neil Bartlett has cast women in the roles of Toby Belch, Andrew Aguecheek and Fabian and a man in the role of Viola. Yet the production’s success rests less with what could be regarded as superficial casting ploys than with the mature emotional intelligence Bartlett brings to one of Shakespeare’s most-produced plays.
Bartlett’s directing career — he’s also a performer, playwright and novelist — is studded with studies in sexual ambivalence. This time, however, he reverses expectation.
It is relatively commonplace in the U.K. to echo Elizabethan all-male casting in order to underline the play’s crucial gender confusions: Orsino being startled to discover he has fallen for a boy; Viola poleaxed by Olivia’s love. But Bartlett digs deeper.
His approach is epitomized by his discovery of an enlightening moment in which Feste (James Clyde) realizes that Cesario (Chris New) is actually a girl in drag. Momentarily wrong-footed, he pauses and then shrugs as if to say, “What you will,” the Shakespearean version of the contemporary dictum “Whatever.”
The sophistication of that response is echoed throughout. Eschewing the standard approach of examining Viola/Cesario’s skill at disguise, Bartlett appears to take his cue from Viola’s early line “Thou shalt present me as an eunuch to him.” New is thus relieved of the distracting business of allowing auds to see how well or ill he pulls off the task of female impersonation. This allows him much more room to explore depth of emotion in both guises, something he accomplishes with truly arresting poise.
Jason Merrells’ superbly vigorous Orsino, no typical, languid dope, is so grateful to Cesario that he goes to kiss him. A nanosecond before their lips touch, he freezes. But instead of playing Orsino’s shock at the discovery of his feelings for a boy — which panders to the notion that homosexual attraction is peculiar — Merrells’ reaction vividly captures that confusing complexity of the emotions that impel the character.
Music, in this production, really is the food of love. Feste, the play’s clown, fools about at the keyboard of a grand piano, the only major item of furniture on Kandis Cook’s bracingly plain, thrust-stage set.
Clyde’s Feste is a disheveled lounge lizard, a classless musician who roams through the rigorously stratified Edwardian household. Droll and louche, he underscores moments of magic and ripples blue-note chords of Simon Deacon’s first-rate, atmospheric score up the keyboard or sings songs of persuasive melancholy.
Decked out in convincing wigs and facial hair, the women-as-men casting is highly successful. Marjorie Yates is a gruff, tweedy Toby Belch, despite being positively pickled in alcohol. Joanne Howarth is an equally beaming drunkard as Fabian, while Annabel Leventon’s Aguecheek is one of those aged, upper-class types who never outgrew their early years as lanky, privileged dimwits.
Justine Mitchell is a nicely pragmatic Olivia, delivering high status without effort. Briskly authoritative and convinced of her own intelligence, her Olivia is all the more powerful for the time she takes to allow auds to understand her complex thought processes.
Lithgow’s beautifully spoken, unstooping Malvolio is equally at home. Permanently drawn to his full height, he loftily suggests that something singularly unpleasant — usually a servant — is lying just beneath his nose. Perfectly absurd, he is never preposterous. For once, his lover’s attire of cross-gartered yellow stockings makes sense as a costume rather than being a laughable confection that no one would for a moment take seriously.
That’s symptomatic of Bartlett’s attention not to comic effect but to dramatic authenticity. The production is funny, but for the most part, it fields and finesses comedy from the text rather than extraneous gags.
The extra laughs, like Rachael Spence’s amusing fainting maid, derive from the vivacity of the emotions on display — you never forget that loves and lives are seriously at stake. There have been both more hilarious and more beautiful productions of the play, but for true tension and sheer dramatic insight, this one is hard to beat.