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John Lithgow may be best known for the sitcom Third Rock From The Sun, but he can blend over-the-top comedy with unhinged menace, as in Brian De Palma’s self-parodic movie Raising Cain. Curious, then, that in Twelfth Night, with its rich potential for evoking darker undercurrents, director Neil Bartlett makes virtually no use of this dimension in his actor. Lithgow’s steward Malvolio, when imprisoned as a madman in Act Four, plays his distress sincerely but not shatteringly; his final line, “I’ll be revenged on the whole pack of you”, is given the purest reading of utter ruination I can recall.

Mostly, though, his characterisation suggests a raft of mid-20th-century English comic character actors, principally Dennis Price and Charles Lloyd Pack, as he patrols the lady Olivia’s household with exaggeratedly measured tread. When, having found a letter tricking him into believing Olivia loves him, he practises smiling, Lithgow does not overplay the grimacing as much as many actors, but for one incredible moment resembles a distressed coelacanth.

However, Lithgow’s Hollywood cachet is not the primary focus of Bartlett’s production. One of Britain’s most thoughtful gay directors, he wrings new twists out of the sexual disequilibrium of the play. Setting it in the Edwardian period (with mutton-chop whiskers aplenty), he casts young male actor Chris New as Viola, the protagonist who disguises herself as a boy. After the ringlets and gown of his first scene are disposed of, New makes little or no attempt to play femininity as such; rather, he is to all intents and purposes a tentative young gay man, trying to cope with his secret love for the prissily self-indulgent Count Orsino and genuinely pitying Justine Mitchell’s Olivia when she professes a love he cannot return. New’s performance is simple and affecting.

Conversely, Viola’s identical twin brother Sebastian scarcely notices when sea-captain Antonio displays his own affections. In a further twist, Orsino and Antonio are played by strikingly similar-looking brothers Jason and Simon Merrells, so that in these pairings we see differing images of the same faces in various permutations of the love that dare not speak its name.

Contrast New’s naturalness with the artificially hearty renditions of Toby Belch, Andrew Aguecheek and Fabian, played by Marjorie Yates, Annabel Leventon and Joanne Howarth as music-hall “drag kings” of a century or so ago. This works altogether less well, partly because overplayed Shakespearean comedy is always deadly, but also because there is no corresponding romantic or sexual tension to inform the dynamic. The opening scenes also felt under-rehearsed: several actors muffed their line cues on press night.

Apart from Messrs New and (as far as he goes) Lithgow, the success of the evening is James Clyde as Feste. It is all but impossible nowadays to avoid the dark and embittered side of this jester, but Clyde excels, bringing to the character the same mixture of irreverence and nihilism that imbued his Spike Milligan in Roy Smiles’ play Ying Tong three years ago. As he orchestrates the proceedings with infernal supper-lounge flourishes at a grand piano, we grasp Feste’s jaded loathing of all around him for listening to his silly riffs and of himself for peddling them. For this Feste, the rain it most decidedly raineth every day. The outlook for Illyria as a whole: changeable.

Tel 0844 800 1110; www.rsc.org.uk

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