Page 12, 2nd January 2009

2nd January 2009
Page 12
Page 12, 2nd January 2009 — Brilliant contortions

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Organisations: RSC, Ballets Russes
Locations: LONDON, Hamlet


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Brilliant contortions

Twelfth Night WYNDHAMʼS THEATRE, LONDON Malvolio is not the leading role, yet Twelfth Night is Malvolio’s play and it is Derek Jacobi’s face which advertises Shakespeare’s last and greatest comedy. It has always been so, ever since the play was first performed, possibly on 12th night, January 6 1601. Audiences look forward to two scenes in particular. The first is when Malvolio is tricked into believing that the lady of the house, whom he serves as steward, is in love with him. The second is when, following the instructions to the letter, he enters absurdly wearing yellow stockings. Elizabethan audiences would also have found the scene when he is put in a dark dungeon and treated as a madman very funny. There are people even today who find his brutal humiliation funny.

The role is very easy to over-act. In 1901 Beerbohm Tree, always accompanied by four miniature Malvolios, fell down a long flight of stairs. Laurence Olivier was a nasal, lisping, effeminate steward. Eric Porter behaved like a superannuated member of Ballets Russes. Donald Sinden memorably stopped the show when he looked at the sun and corrected a sundial. Nicol Williams, chasing Olivia round the garden, resembled a frustrated vulture. Desmond Barrit, all in yellow and crossgartered, resembled a Brobdingnagian wasp. Simon Russell Beale looked like an officious turkey cock. Richard Briers had a hilarious moment when, mouth firmly turned down, and maintaining an expression more suitable for the mask of tragedy, he grimly promised that he would smile.

Watching Derek Jacobi desperately trying to smile, shoving his face through a number of hideous contortions, is one of the high spots; but his performance elsewhere, in keeping with Michael Grandage’s lowkey production, is more subtly comic. The mad scene is all the more effective for keeping him under the stage, with his hands visible through a grill.

Sir Andrew Aguecheek (very tall) and Sir Toby Belch (very small) are visually a comic music hall double act, yet there is nothing funny about Ron Cook’s inebriated Belch, who is so very nasty that you wonder why a sensible woman like Samantha Spiro’s Maria is marrying him. Guy Henry, already one of the tallest actors in Britain, and one of the funniest, manages to look even taller as the brainless Aguecheek.

Hamlet RSC, NOVELLO THEATRE David Tennant, who has done so much good work on the stage and is equally adept in classical and modern roles, found a completely new public when he appeared as Doctor Who in the television series. Greg Doran’s production, eagerly awaited in London, was completely sold out before it had even opened. So it was a bitter disappointment to find that Tennant had gone into hospital and that his understudy, Edward Bennett, would play Hamlet.

In the early 19th century an audience arriving to see Siddons, Kemble, Garrick and Kean and finding they were not going to appear, would have been vociferous in the extreme and there would almost certainly have been a riot. The actors would be lucky if a word of the play was heard. Today, we do things differently. The company was cheered before a word of the play was uttered. In the curtain call Bennett got a standing ovation. Sir Peter Hall, former artistic director of the RSC, sitting behind me, cried out: “Bravo!” Doran’s production is built round David Tennant’s charismatic persona and so Bennett had to act within that format. The press night was only the second time he had played the role in front of an audience. His performance was remarkable in the circumstances, but, inevitably, it wasn’t the thrilling performance people had come to see. The stage is dominated by Patrick Stewart’s Claudius.

Robert Tanitch

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