Shakespeare’s plays are often crudely divided between comedies and tragedies; the director of this latest production of Twelfth Night clearly didn’t get that memo.
Norwich-educated Rory Attwood has taken the themes of inversion within the play to an extreme and while it still ends with three weddings, it feels more like a funeral. Pretty much all the way through.
Out goes the ribald farce, replaced with moody looks, silences, and self-love masking self-loathing. He can’t quite get rid of Malvolio’s yellow stockings, but the rest of the production looks like a cross between minimalist Beckett and Withnail and I.
It leaves the play flat and depressing, with a first half that lumbers along suffocating in its own perverse misery. It does at least commit to its cause.
The text itself redeems the second-half, forced into comedy by the action on stage. Laurie Coldwell as Sir Andrew Ague-Cheek fights against the tide with good timing and fabulous facial expressions, and Caroline Haines is a nicely drawn Maria.
Ben Blyth plays every side of Malvolio with skill and Toby Parker-Rees’ Feste and Tom Hartill’s Belch support well, but the whole cast is playing with one hand tied behind their backs.
The programme notes claim that Twelfth Night is usually allowed to “collapse into out-and-out comedy partly because comedy is easier”. It isn’t. Comedy – done well – is terrifically difficult, and sometimes tradition gets it right.