'Twelfth Night'

Two swords, one windbreak, a suitcase, a basket, a wine glass, some coins and a letter. That tiny list of props is the least likely but most telling indicator of the strength of Michael Grandage's seamless production of "Twelfth Night."

Two swords, one windbreak, a suitcase, a basket, a wine glass, some coins and a letter. That tiny list of props is the least likely but most telling indicator of the strength of Michael Grandage’s seamless production of “Twelfth Night.” Nothing gets between the actors and the text, and the only break in tension between the action and the audience is intermission. Singularly fleet and brimming with heart and humor, the production is, quite simply, a joy.

Instead of directing a comedy, Grandage welds his actors to the play’s underlying high-stakes drama. With every character set in motion with the plot and with each other, comedy then flows from the writing and situations rather than from added “comic playing.”

The unusually wide emotional range this elicits is evident from the opening scene. Traditionally, productions begin with Orsino wafting about pining for Olivia, languidly asking, “If music be the food of love, play on … ”

Not here. A thunderclap silences the audience and Mark Bonnar’s dynamic Orsino bursts in using the line to rail against the stormy fates. He’s not self-pitying, he’s urgent and desperate. From that moment on it’s clear that, for once, his love isn’t sappy, it’s serious.

The production’s mature confidence is embodied by the audaciously simple design. Christopher Oram’s set consists solely of a slatted and mottled-red back wall grounded by weather-beaten planks of driftwood curving up slightly to either edge of the stage to gently suggest a ship. Apart from two of the wall’s panels swinging open for dramatic entrances, the only set change is when Oram flies the wall out to open the stage still further, right back to an abstract cyclorama.

Yet the designer, composer Julian Philips — whose lush string underscoring and songs echo loves won and lost — and lighting designer Neil Austin create extraordinarily varied locations and emotional temperatures. Austin’s ravishing shift from a shadowy interior into the tangible heat of outdoor Mediterranean sunlight is typical of his dramatic handling of the play’s contrasting moods.

Doubling as Viola/Cesario, Victoria Hamilton has never been better. Her exuberant work is captivating not because she looks suitably boyish, but because the unusual sincerity of her open-hearted passion makes her overwhelmingly attractive to both sexes. It’s that which makes Indira Varma’s effortlessly commanding, swanlike Olivia so rashly drop her defenses in an amusing attempt to woo him/her.

Hamilton’s performance is complemented by Alex Waldmann as her long-lost twin, Sebastian. Not only do they look alike, they share the same boldness, particularly as Sebastian beds Olivia with a wholly endearing “what the hell” grin.

Ron Cook’s sour but potent Toby Belch is permanently pickled but never obviously drunk (only once do we see him actually drinking). He’s ideally partnered by Guy Henry’s spectacularly dim-witted but touchingly wistful Aguecheek.

Their louche behavior, alternately corralled and encouraged by Samantha Spiro’s resourceful Maria, rises to giddy comic heights in their hilariously staged gulling of Malvolio, a role feasted upon by Derek Jacobi who uses his comic soliloquies to play the audience like a violin.

The intensity of his insufferable snobbery provides the plotters with a real motive for their revenge, a balancing of actions and consequences that’s central to the interpretation. There have been darker, more ambiguous or zanier stagings of “Twelfth Night,” but none in recent memory has juggled both the play’s madness and melancholia to such heart-stopping effect.

This wise, winning production crowns an outstanding year for Grandage. Following the sell-out West End success of “Ivanov,” the Donmar brand remains a beacon of theatrical confidence.

Twelfth Night

Wyndham's Theater, London; 750 seats; £32.50 $49 top

Production

A Donmar West End presentation of a play in two acts by William Shakespeare. Directed by Michael Grandage.

Creative

Sets and costumes, Christopher Oram; lighting, Neil Austin; original music, Julian Philips; sound, Fergus O'Hare; choreography, Ben Wright; production stage manager, Greg Shimmin. Opened, reviewed Dec. 10, 2008. Running time 2 HOURS, 30 MIN.

Cast

Viola - Victoria Hamilton Orsino - Mark Bonnar Olivia - Indira Varma Malvolio - Derek Jacobi Maria - Samantha Spiro Sir Toby Belch - Ron Cook Sir Andrew Aguecheek - Guy Henry Feste - Zubin Varla Sebastian - Alex Waldmann Antonio - Lloyd Hutchinson Valentine - James Howard Curio - Norman Bowman Captain, Dancing Master, Priest - Ian Drysdale

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