Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare, adapted by Sally Avens

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Drama on 3 on BBC Radio 3

BBC Radio 3, 22 April 2012
The first production in Radio 3's triple bill of productions for the BBC's "Shakespeare Unlocked" season immediately put listeners on their toes. Instead of beginning with Orsino's (Paul Ready's) soliloquy "If music be the food of love, play on," directır Sally Avens cut direct to Viola (Naomi Frederick) and the Captain (Gerard McDermott) landing in Illyria, with Viola asking "What country, friends, is this?" Orsino's speech, plus the exchanged with Valentine (Harry Livingstone) came after this scene had finished. Avens' textual alteration emphasized how fragile human beings actually are; they are always at the mercy of the elements. We were reminded of this right at the end, when Feste (James Lailey) delivered his song "When that I was and a little tiny boy" with the wind howling and waves crashing on the seashore in the background.
Avens' production contained two thematic cross-currents. On the one hand, it explored the consequences of power at different social levels. Sir Toby (Ron Cook) took great pleasure in taunting Sir Andrew (Adam James), secure in the knowledge that Sir Andrew lacked both the wit and the physical strength to fight back. Malvolio (David Tennant) considered himself socially superior to virtually everyone except for Olivia (Vanessa Kelly), which encouraged him to deliver his lines in nasal, sneering tones. Feste (James Lailey) took a malicious pleasure in confusing Viola/ Cesario with his wordplay, and had a fine old time later on in the production, as he disguised himself as Sir Topas - using a dreadful mock-Spanish accent - and taunted the "madly-used" Malvolio. None of these scenes were particularly funny; but this was precisely what director Avens wanted. The characters' pathetic attempts to dominate each other emphasized their frailties: rather than joining together in a group to protect themselves against the elements, they chose to score points off one another.
The second major theme was indolence. In Cook's performance, Sir Toby came across as a self-indulgent sot completely devoid of redeeming qualities. Apart from a fondness for sack, his principal pleasure in life consisted of enjoying other people suffer. Orsino and Olivia were so wrapped up in their own obsessions that they had little time for anyone around them. Although they found suitable partners in the end, we felt that their prospects for a successful marriage were limited, to say the least. Olivia seemed to understand this, as she referred to the "golden time" when "A solemn combination shall be made/ Of our dear souls" in quavering tones. If any of these characters - Sir Toby, Orsino and Olivia - were to perish in the ensuing storm, we would not feel sorry for them; they would simply get what they deserved.
This was certainly not the case with Malvolio - as portrayed by Tennant (in a stand-out performance), he came across as someone who tried to shake off his mask of social pretention and act according to his instincts. As he read the letter (ostensibly written by Olivia but actually penned by Maria (Rosie Cavaliero)), he was totally oblivious to the innuendoes in the line "These be her very c's, her u's, and her t's, and thus makes she her great P's," he delivered his lines at a great lick, until he came to the acronym "M.O.A.I." He pronounced it several different ways, but understood at length that it must be some kind of code-word. As he tried to work it out, his voice became more and more high-pitched with excitement. He had great difficulty trying to pronounce the word "sloth" - until now, the word had never been part of his vocabulary.
Malvolio's hopes of amatory success with Olivia were cruelly dashed, as he was thrown into a darkened cell and subject to Feste/ Sir Thopas' taunts. Malvolio's voice changed; every speech was punctuated with a sepulchral groan, as he understood that his career was now in ruins. Giving into his instincts had proved an unwise move; he should have remained a snob. His final line in the play "I'll be revenged on the whole pack of you" was truly memorable. He spoke the first three words quickly ("I'll be revenged), took a pause of two or three beats, and delivered the rest of the phrase with an animal-like howl ("ON THE WHOLE PACK OF YOU!") Malvolio meant what he said; this was no empty threat. We had to feel sorry for him - despite his social airs and graces, he had been "madly used" and abused by those dedicated to a life of indolence.
The production was embellished throughout by atmospheric music (composed by Roger Goula). In the comic scenes, a single string or a flute played a ditty in the background. In the final scene, we heard a festive tune accompanied by fireworks and tubular bells, celebrating the marriages of Orsino and Viola, Olivia and Sebastian. However the happy ending proved nothing more than an illusion.
Performed at a jaunty pace by a cast thoroughly engaged with their various roles, this was an ideal opening to the Shakespeare season.