Our play is set in 1890s England amongst the rural countryside full of beautiful statues, glasshouses and fountains.
In this 2017 RSC production Viola and Sebastian are portrayed as Indian twins who have both washed up in England from a shipwreck. This is an interesting choice from director Christopher Luscombe and is fitting in a nation so fascinated with their imperial rule over India. Furthermore, in homage to Queen Victoria’s attendant Abdul Karim, who she called ‘the munshi’, Olivia has employed Feste, an Indian entertainer, portrayed by Beruce Khan. Much like Abdul Karim who was taunted by fellow servants, Feste is taunted by Malvolio who hisses at him and you can see Feste’s resentment at having to sing and dance on command.
Dinita Gohil is exceptional as Viola. In particular the famous ring speech is full of amusement over the confusion that her appearance is causing Olivia. Gohil has an impish streak, but is equally at ease with giving sensitivity to the character. My favourite scenes focus on the complex relationship between Orsino and Viola. Gohil and Nicholas Bishop portray the confused relationship between these characters beautifully, especially in their emotional kiss in Act 1. Often the sexual tension between them is palpable throughout the play but never comes to a physical act until the finale. This kiss in Act 1 and Orsino’s shock after it is particularly contentious in a Victorian society that did not welcome homosexuality.
Orsino’s love interest Olivia, portrayed by Kara Tointon, is less at ease with Shakespeare’s language. Tointon is incredibly stiff reciting speeches with a beautifully clipped accent but lack of depth of feeling. Olivia is a troubled character following the death of her brother and this suffering instead comes off as stand-offishness in Tointon’s performance. Tointon’s physicality is beautiful, embodying the grace and high status of the character, but she falls short of the likeability that Olivia should have.
My favourite directorial choice of this production is the darkness that comes through in Andrew, the Fool and Toby’s behaviour. Their drunkenness and frivolity, whilst funny at times, is to the audience as it is to Olivia and Malvolio – irritating and embarrassing for their age. Moreover, their treatment of Malvolio is at points disgusting, particularly by the fool. The darker side of this play comes through in this production which is often forgotten whilst we’re too busy laughing at these foolish men.
In this time of confusion this performance is a welcome respite. It is freeing to get lost in the magic of the countryside, to invest in the deception and hear a Shakespearean fool perform his song.
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