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Tainted love

A Chekhovian twist brings out the narcissism in Shakespeare's characters, says Heather Neill.

Twelfth Night

By William Shakespeare

Donmar Warehouse, London

Sam Mendes' final production as artistic director of the Donmar is a Twelfth Night played in rep with Uncle Vanya. Shakespeare's mixture of melancholy and humour is given a Chekhovian flavour by setting the action in the 1930s and giving Olivia's household a bourgeois atmosphere.

Maria, played by Selina Cadell, is not so much a lady-in-waiting as a bossy, middle-aged housekeeper while Sir Toby, played by Paul Jesson, is a ruddy-faced, moustachioed cove in a tweed jacket. Class differences are present, but less defined than in a production set in the 16th century.

Malvolio, in whom the ridiculous and the pathetic meet, is the person on whom Olivia depends. As played by Simon Russell Beale, his dreams of her love are ridiculous, not because he is unworthy of her, but because his pomposity makes him easy prey for conspirators. Shakespeare's dislike of the anti-theatre Puritans translates into self-satisfied bible-reading as Malvolio lies on the bed in his bare servant's quarters.

The box-tree scene takes place here - at odds with the text - with Toby, Andrew (wonderfully played by David Bradley) and Fabian secreted behind a screen as their dupe reads Maria's forged letter. Russell Beale's Malvolio - hilarious in a hair net as he issues his kill-joy condemnations in the catch-singing scene, but humiliated when he is later trussed in a strait jacket - is a triumph to set beside his comic-sad Vanya.

Emily Watson's earnest Viola never looks anything but girlish so that, as Orsino, Mark Strong's impetuous kissing of "Caesario" looks well-nigh unexceptionable. Orsino's court is an alien place, with servants dressed like automata. He is a serious figure and could never have been a suitable match for this Olivia, a skittish Helen McCrory who, unbelievably, strips to her underwear to flirt with Caesario and who beds Sebastian before the wedding.

The stage is dominated by a picture or mirror frame, in which Orsino sees a nun-like Olivia - an expression of his desire rather than the true image of her. The narcissism of love and the idealising of the beloved, according to the lover's needs, are Mendes' themes.

Things are not what they seem, but sometimes that is what we prefer. How else can we accept the delight Olivia and Sebastian seem keen to find in each other or Orsino's realisation that he loves Viola whatever her gender?

Twelfth Night runs until November 20Tel: 020 7369 1732

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