TWELFTH NIGHT. Tara Arts. Albery Theatre, London until October 30. Tickets: 0870 060 6621. English Touring Theatre tour: Brighton, Salford, York, Buxton, Guildford, Durham. Information:
The issues are timeless, whatever the setting. Heather Neill reports on two productions of Twelfth Night
Transported to contemporary India, Twelfth Night's melancholic comedy is Monsoon-washed in Jonathan Fenson's courtyard-style setting. Kulvinder Ghir makes Feste a specifically Indian fool, adding and energetic transvestite dance to the script, and Neha Dubey's Olivia is a Bollywood beauty, but otherwise this is a fairly conventional reading.
Shereen Martineau is outstanding as an intelligent, passionate, clearly spoken Viola and Paul Bhattacharjee's upright colonial servant of a Malvolio is both amusing in office and rightly upsetting as the butt of Maria's cruel joke.
Altogether, Stephen Beresford's production at the Albery is commendable for its clarity and freshness.
Meanwhile, Stephen Unwin has decided to set his production for the English Touring Theatre in the year the play was written, 1600. He, too, is going for clarity and sharpness, respecting Shakespeare's world while not being "dusty and dull".
He says: "It is a most remarkable play, about the agony of unrequited love, but about getting old as well: Toby is on the way out, potentially an alcoholic disaster." He sees Maria, Olivia's resourceful maid, as probably saving his life by marrying him.
"It is," says Unwin, "a Mediterranean play with its sense of infinite sea and sadness of atmosphere, but it is very powerfully English as well, particularly in the characters of Toby and Aguecheek. It is a portrait of different versions of the aristocracy of the time."
As well as these two, the one dissolute and shameless in living off another, the other foolish, there is Orsino, the self-regarding aesthete (whom Unwin sees as young and relatively inexperienced) and there is Olivia. "Olivia is remarkable: she fulfils her responsibilities and duties - her duty to her class -while at the same time she is a desperately private person. Keeping the balance is difficult and she almost cracks."
And yet she seems happy to be married to Sebastian, the twin of the person she is in love with, Viola, disguised as the Duke's page, Cesario. "But Sebastian is remarkable too in the way that he talks about Viola and it is clear that they are two peas from the same pod."
The class divisions will be clear in this production. As Unwin remarks, when Malvolio says "I'll be reveng'd on the whole pack of you!", he is in a sense foretelling the future: "That class did win out".
Unwin sums up the complexity of the play by saying that he and his cast are striving to "keep the balance between romanticism and earthiness, delicacy and robustness" and between the love of life and the proximity of death, a theme never far from the surface of Twelfth Night.