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RSC Twelfth Night - Review

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Indian flavour to comedy starring Adrian Edmondson
Adrian Edmondson has a lengthy acting and comedy career so it's surprising that his Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) debut has come so late, but has it been worth waiting for?

Twelfth night, RSC, Adrian Edmondson , Kara Tointon , Stratford ,
Twelfth Night by the RSC. Photo by Manuel Harlan

Edmondson stars as the tragi-comedic character Malvolio, at the butt of the joke in the RSC's new production of Twelfth Night at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, but he is just one of many actors in this production making his debut for the esteemed theatre company.

Twelfth Night runs until February 24 and is directed by Christopher Luscombe - the same man behind the sumptuous Edwardian-set versions of Love's Labours Lost and Love's Labours Won (Much Ado About Nothing) for the RSC in 2014.

This Twelfth Night has similar characteristics with the same luxurious vintage stage settings inspired by local landmarks. This time the play has been set in Victorian Britain. There's wonderful reimagining of Victoriana train stations, a steampunk attic of arty shenanigans that the Romantics would have been proud of and a stately home inspired by Wightwick Manor in Wolverhampton.

But what's pleasantly different about this production is that it has taken the influence of the British Empire during Victoria's reign to make some of the key characters from India. The washed-up on shore foreign twins are Indian, and it fits in well with the era that they take up roles as servants.

Twelfth night, RSC, Adrian Edmondson, Kara Tointon
This version has an Indian flavour. Photo by Manuel Harlan

Even Olivia (Kara Tointon), first appears head to toe in black mourning dress and veil followed by her Indian manservant and fool. It is a striking image, very much with throwbacks to Queen Victoria and her entourage.

The story of mistaken gender identities, desire and high jinx starts with Indian Viola washed up on the British shores and ending up in the service of artist Orsino while disguised as a young man. His adoration of lady Olivia means Viola becomes a go-between dressed as a manservant. Olivia ends up falling for the disguised Viola while Viola falls in love with Orsino.

Unbeknown to Viola, her twin brother Sebastian has also survived elsewhere and it all gets more complicated when he reemerges in the same area and everyone confuses the two siblings.

Orsino (Nicholas Bishop) is very much in the vein of Byron or a similar Romantic - open-shirted, long hair and dashing artistic dreaminess. His moodily-lit scenes are accompanied by a pianist with champagne flowing and Bedouin sofas where he lounges, sighs and seduces.

In contrast, Olivia's country house is the formality of Victorian life, buttoned up to the neck in tradition and starchness. These scenes are in a glorious glass conservatory or wood panelled living room with smouldering fire that brings a glorious historic England to life.

RSC, twelfth night, Adrian Edmondson, Kara Tointon, Stratford
An artistic romantic setting for Orsino and Viola.Photo by Manuel Harlan

It is in this mansion that we find Adrian Edmondson's Malvolio, a kind of head butler to Olivia. He's got the stiff upper lip and purity that heads for a collision course with Olivia's uncle, the drunken layabout Sir Toby Belch, who farts his way through his first appearance.

Edmondson becomes Malvolio in a very natural way with great attention to detail. At times, you can see elements of previous characters from Bottom and the like in his winning performance. The placing of a white glove in order to move his lady's teapot to the ridiculous flourishes of high jinx as he dons yellow stockings, it's marvellous stuff and he shines when on stage.

There's also an added emotional depth to his characterisation towards the end of the play that makes you really feel for what Malvolio has been put through.

Twelfth night, RSC, Stratford, Adrian Edmondson
Adrian Edmondson making his debut for the RSC. Photo by Manuel Harlan

Also making fine RSC debuts are the female leads of Dinita Gohil as Viola and Kara Tointon as Olivia. Gohil is fresh-faced, animated and clear while former Strictly Come Dancing winner and TV favourite Tointon, whose recent stage roles include Gaslight and Pygmalion, has suitable aloofness and formality in the role.

Twelfth Night is a comedy, however, so it is the hilarious antics of John Hodgkinson's Sir Toby Belch and Michael Cochrane's Sir Andrew Aguecheek that are the most memorable. Hodgkinson and Cochrane(also making a RSC debut) make a great team with elements of slapstick, pantomime and comic timing that work a treat.

Twelfth night, RSC, Stratford, Adrian Edmondson, Kara Tointon
Michael Cochrane is hilarious as Sir Andrew Aguecheek. Photo by Manuel Harlan

Finally, there's the secret ingredient that gels it altogether - the music. There's plenty of songs in this production that all bring a sense of sereneness or joy. Some even have an Eastern flavour with sitar strings and the fool Feste (Beruce Khan) is used particularly well in these musical escapes.

There's one particular scene where the characters are dancing and singing around the living room at night that is particularly emphatic and reminds me so much of the Rain In Spain moment in the My Fair Lady film with Audrey Hepburn.

Twelfth Night is a welcome continuation of Luscombe's series of RSC comedies. It's lavish, joyous, well-thought out and marks the long-awaited RSC performance of one of Britain's best comedy actors. Maybe Edmondson shouldn't have left it this long?


Twelfth Night runs at Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford upon Avon until 24 February. Visit the RSC website for tickets.

Running time: 2 hrs 20 mins 20 mins interval

The production will be broadcast live to cinemas on Wednesday February 14, 2018. Visit the RSC cinema page to find where it will be screened.
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Why? See RSC's new comedy starring Adrian Edmondson and Kara Tointon
When: Until February 24, 2018
Phone: 01789 403493
Where: Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon
Cost: From 10
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