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Twelve out of twelve

There is a tremendous affection for Twelfth Night among theatre people, they just love being involved with a production.

John Doyle, the artistic director of York Theatre Royal, calls it a perfect play and Shakespeare's best comedy. He has a repertory production opening tonight, and John Retallack of Oxford Stage Company has a tour which has just started.

Oxford Stage has an accompanying series of educational events sponsored by Sainsbury's and titled Breathing Life into Shakespeare. They look thorough and a free information pack is available.

John Retallack poses a pertinent question about Twelfth Night: "Yes I love the play, but can you tell me if you have ever seen it all work?" "One tries to go for the remarkable integration of lovers driven to extreme, and comic characters driven to extreme as well. I want the characters to go to the very edge of despair or to their greatest desire."

He has postponed directing Twelfth Night until he felt he had the right people to do it. He believes he has restored the character of Auguecheek to life, having him played with bravura rather than the usual assumed limpness. His Sir Toby will be more the shark, more the arch manipulator than comic fat man. Malvolio and Feste will bring out the animosity in each other without resorting to earnest spite.

The Oxford company will have a small playing area because for 80 per cent of the time there are no more than three actors on stage. The stage is bare but with layers above and behind and a richly coloured floor. Behind the actors will be a huge gauze covered disc rather like the sun but changing colour to suit the emotional shifts.

At York, John Doyle will have a Christmas tree as a focal point, dominating a circular room with five French windows showing the outside world.

"The tree has three sides, it revolves. One side is all lovely silver decorations and very bright and optimistic. It turns again and you are in the outside world, it's snowy white, and then it turns again and it's decorated with black jet for Olivia's house which is of course in mourning. And through the windows you see snow falling near the seaside, which is quite an unusual thing. It's the idea, at the beginning of the play, that the elements are not quite in order".

Doyle has set his production in Victoria's reign when the Queen would have been in mourning for Prince Albert. The melancholy in the play fascinates him. He is deliberately setting out to look at the unhappy images and bring humour out of tragic circumstances.

Doyle has an impish sense of fun but maintains his production will be "pure rather than purist". His Sir Andrew will enter on skis.

Twelfth Night at York Theatre Royal from today to November 18 (01904 623568) Oxford Stage Company's tour began yesterday (01865 723238).

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