Sunday 9 September 2007

Is gender mere disguise?

To Stratford yesterday afternoon, to see the RSC in Neil Bartlett's production of Twelfth Night. It's attracted publicity due to Bartlett's decision to contribute his own layer of gender confusion to Shakespeare's drama of cross-dressed mistaken identity. Not only is the part of Viola given to a male actor (as, of course, would have been the case in Shakespeare's day), but a number of the secondary male characters - notably Sir Toby Belch and Sir Andrew Aguecheek - are played by women. Michael Billington, for one, was unimpressed, giving the production only two stars in his Guardian review earlier this week.

I thought the production got off to a faltering start, with neither the 'straight' leads nor the comic characters succeeding in grabbing the audience's attention for the first few scenes. Things livened up when Malvolio, played by veteran US actor John Lithgow, appeared, and his performance was one of the delights of the production. (The presence of the star of Third Rock from the Sun and the voice of Lord Farquaad from Shrek was also a bonus as far as our children were concerned.)

Chris New turned in a charming performance as Viola/Cesario, making you want to suspend disbelief and imagine that this really was a girl disguised as a boy, rather than a boy disguised as a girl disguised as a boy (if you see what I mean). He's certainly a young talent to watch, and his performance as one of the two Dromios - the other being Iain McKee who played Sebastian here - in the forthcoming revival of Nancy Meckler's outstanding Comedy of Errors, should be worth seeing - though Jonathan Slinger's original characterisation will be hard to beat). The audience also enjoyed James Clyde as Feste the fool, played as a louche piano-playing MC with more than a hint of Bill Nighy in Love Actually in his voice and mannerisms. And Siobhan Redmond as Maria the housekeeper was delightful, managing to make even a black Victorian bustle seem alluring.

Overall, though, I agree with Billington that the additional cross-dressing didn't add much to our understanding of the play. I take it that the general gender-swapping, together with the final gesture of the actors handing their costumes to a parlourmaid as they left the stage, was meant to convey a sense that gender roles are little more than disguises. If so, this was quite a facile and hackneyed point on which to hang so much. I'm not sure it added much to the comedy and at times I felt it definitely detracted from it.

The play was staged in the Courtyard, the RSC's temporary home while the main theatre undergoes its huge refurbishment. It's a foretaste of what the new theatre will look like, with its thrust stage and tiered seating offering seemingly excellent views from wherever you're sitting. The children thought it smelled like IKEA.

Going to the theatre in Stratford is a more intimate experience than in London or other big cities. You run the risk of bumping into actors you've just seen on stage in the street afterwards: we came across 'Sebastian' shopping for his tea in M&S not half an hour after the matinee. Oh, and John Woodvine was in the audience: we saw him queuing up for the gents in the interval.

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