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Relax, sit back and enjoy it

Rex Gibson looks forward to Twelfth Night at Stratford

Forget bear-baiting, sword play and doublet and hose, The Royal Shakespeare Company's Twelfth Night, opening in Stratford next Tuesday, will be a modern dress production.

Directed by Adrian Noble and designed by Anthony Ward, it uses all kinds of period props to give a 20th-century flavour. There's a 1920s gramophone, a 1950s hospital bed, and a huge refrigerator. Malvolio's modern version of cross-gartered yellow stockings (still a secret) will be a brilliant surprise.

David Calder, playing Sir Toby Belch, says "Everything will be a little larger than life, expressing the larger than life nature of the play itself. These are people who seem to have had something very peculiar in their coffee that morning, and we'll be playing up that Alice Through the Looking Glass quality. "

But don't expect caricature or coarse acting in this display of May madness. both Calder and Philip Voss, who plays Malvolio, are determined to present their characters as real persons. "Sir Toby is very funny", says Calder, "but it's a disaster if he's played as a one dimensional comic character."

Calder's Sir Toby is "a lonely and desperate guy, not a comic-cuts figure. In the modern world we'd treat the constant drunk, the person who starts drinking before breakfast, as someone in need of help and my Sir Toby needs help. He'll be in the Alcoholic Ward pretty soon."

Calder's crucial line for Sir Toby is "Care's an enemy to life." "That makes him 'care-less' in every sense of that word, especially including being careless about himself. The result of his excess is that it all turns out to be a very miserable day for him."

Philip Voss also searches for the truth of the character he plays. "I certainly play Malvolio as a tight-laced Puritan, but as a very real human being, not for gags."

Voss is a Stanislavsky-type actor. "I look for the objective that drives Malvolio. And that's his self-love and desire for position. My key line is 'Jove, I thank thee'. My Malvolio is one of the Elect. Jove has specially picked him out, and is going to give Olivia to him. He really does believe he can help Olivia, but he takes advantage of her mourning to gain influence over her, to strengthen his position in the household. It's the tyranny of grief. "

Both actors see the play as being about social class as much as about sexual ambiguity. Philip Voss' Malvolio started out in rehearsal as a working class lad from Nottingham, very mother-driven to achieve in life. The accent seems to have got lost along the way, but the class resentment remains. "He thinks he's the cat's whiskers, and his objective is to use the class structure as a ladder. He's way down the rungs, but he's determined to climb!" David Calder's Sir Toby has that low opinion of others that comes from being an impoverished aristocrat, profoundly frustrated "because they have title without power, breeding without brass. They find themselves falling under the authority of these petit-bourgeois like Malvolio. That's why he detests Malvolio."

The outcome of such detestation is that this production's Malvolio really is most vilely abused. "It's on-stage hell for a very long time" says Philip Voss. "My Malvolio is a pompous ass, but he doesn't deserve such cruel treatment. "

Both actors are properly reluctant to offer advice to teachers bringing school parties to the play. Philip Voss probably expresses the whole company's view when he says, "it's a beautiful play, not difficult, extremely funny. Just sit back, relax, let it come at you. It's an entertainment. Enjoy!" tickets: 01789 2956230451 541051

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