Chekhov's Twelfth Night: Sheridan Morely on Sam Mendes's Magnificent Farewell to the Donmar, and a Dance Show That Fails to Swing. (Theatre)
Morely, Sheridan, New Statesman (1996)
Let us suppose, if only for the length of this review, that Shakespeare had never written Twelfth Night. Let us suppose that it was written not for the Globe around 1599, but instead for the Moscow Art Theatre around 1899, and that the author was Anton Chekhov.
What then? What you would get is roughly what Sam Mendes now gives us in his farewell production at the Donmar Warehouse: because the company is cross-cast with his already triumphant Uncle Vanya, which they have now been playing for several sold-out weeks, it is hardly surprising that they should be in Russian mood. Indeed, the company of 12, by far the greatest ensemble in London this past decade or two, are more pre-revolutionary Russian than anyone in the Stoppard plays at the National orin Aferplay at the Gielgud, all of which are also set in and around Moscow or St Petersburg towards the turn of the 19th century or soon after it.
The Mendes Twelfth Night is a revelation and a revolution: David Bradley as Aguecheek, Anthony O'Donnell as Feste, Selina Cadell as Maria all give performances suggesting they can hardly wait to get back to the cherry orchard before it is too late. Simon Russell Beale's Malvolio is no longer a figure of cross-gartered fun and easy mockery, but an intelligent man in deep depress ion. Equally, Emily Watson as Viola and Helen McCrory as Olivia manage to suggest that if the plot does not work out to their satisfaction, a gay alliance might not be out of the question.
I have never seen a more complex, fascinating, layered Twelfth Night: this is no longer a mindless frolic of mistaken identity but a strange, soulful tragi-comedy about bisexuality, depression, and misplaced power, closer to the Shakespeare of the late Winter's Tale or Cymbeline in its many moods and internal conflicts. There are even echoes of Mendes's recent movie Road to Perdition in an opening sequence where men in long black coats Form a semi-circle around the stage.
The play opens on Anthony Ward's minimal, candlelit set as a dark thriller and then shifts into an autumnal, melancholy work, underscored by George Stiles's haunting music. In the final reconciliation scene, the three plotters against Malvolio, Aguecheek, Maria and Toby Belch, carry suitcases to silently indicate that they have been fired from the fools' paradise they have made of Olivia's palace. David Bradley, Selina Cadell and a newcomer to the ensemble, Paul Jesson, play these roles as if for the first time. The play is sold out until late November and then bound for New York so maybe you better start booking airline tickets. …