“I understand you, sir.” So says Viola (Rebecca Hall) to David Ryall’s lugubrious Feste, and she’s not alone. But although the meaning of the lines is always clear, Peter Hall’s latest “Twelfth Night” is more an explication than a production. Shakespeare subtitled his play “What You Will,” but with little animation, less laughter, no sex and, therefore, no tension, in this case it should be “Umpteen actors in search of a director.”
Elegantly designed by Anthony Ward on a largely neutral set with the cast in early Jacobean costume — doublet, hose and lace collars — Hall’s production is his fourth in a highly distinguished career.
The prevailing tone is set by Marton Csokas’ enervated Orsino who, in his famous opening speech, opines: “O spirit of love, how quick and fresh art thou.” If only. This production comes in half an hour longer than Michael Grandage’s virtually uncut Donmar West End production.
Much of the added time comes from not acting on the line. Too many cast members pause in the middle of lines to think and react as if waiting for screen close-ups. But audiences think much faster than helmer Hall thinks they do, and the result is that whatever energy is built up by the more front-footed actors keeps being dissipated.
Chief culprit in this regard is Rebecca Hall. As her lover Olivia, Amanda Drew delivers both precise high status and (highly welcome) increasing vivacity, but in her scenes with Hall’s under-energized Viola, it’s like watching someone never getting a generous tennis serve returned.
With little or no heat emanating from Viola in either of her guises, the play is drained of sexual intrigue. That could be a conscious choice, but there’s precious little in its place aside from generalized melancholia.
With so little driving the play, dramatic stakes stay dangerously low. A marvelously pinched Simon Paisley Day is the epitome of rectitude as the loftiest of Malvolios, but there’s little sense of the household he rules. Consequently, the scene in which he’s tricked lacks punch. And through no fault of the actor, his later false imprisonment is robbed of impact, not least because helmer Hall suddenly switches styles and introduces a sound-effect of machine-like, threatening rumbling when the rest of the sound in the show is of period-style instrumental music.
The finest performance is by Charles Edwards. His beautifully subtle, sweetly ridiculous Aguecheek is funny not because he is an overdressed nitwit (which he is) but because Edwards makes him so good-humoredly and painfully self-aware. But when Aguecheek emerges as the play’s richest character, it’s clear that all is far from well.