We did Shakespeare at school in a heavily glazed South-facing classroom with an almost equally glazed expression so can’t quite recall ‘The Shipwreck Plays’ as being one of the examination-board approved sub-classifications alongside The Histories, The Tragedies, The Problem Plays and so on. But someone among the great and the good at the Royal Shakespeare Company clearly thinks there’s sufficient linkage between The Comedy of Errors (early, farcical nonsense) The Tempest (late, magical, operatic) and Twelfth Night (middle, Christmassy, lightweight) that it’s worth floating the three of them over a huge water tank first at Stratford and now hauled to the Roundhouse.
The first thing that hits you is Jon Bausor’s 270-degree sky-high set, working better at the Roundhouse where it integrates well with the gantried-and-galleried interior of the former railway shed. There’s an operational lift, revolving door, steeply angled bedroom and reception of a raffish hotel all mounted over a glass-sided water tank through which actors explode in gasping wet entrances like freshly landed fish. Despite the fact it contains almost every film noir scenic cliché from the rattling cage lift to the slowly revolving fan, it’s immediately exciting and works brilliantly.
The first act is a touch underlit and makes it harder to engage with the romantic plot – separated-by-shipwreck twins Sebastian and Viola each love a count or countess, Viola cross-dressing as a manservant in order to be closer to the object of her affection ... oh what the hell, you’ll pick it up – but it almost doesn’t matter because the lovers are eclipsed by the comic characters, permanently plastered Sir Toby Belch (gloriously coarse Nicholas Day) and top flight Bruce Mackinnon as a tow-haired and tousled Sir Andrew Aguecheek part swaggering Bullingdon toff and part sniggering schoolboy clutching the edge of his blazer from timidity. Their baiting of the po-faced and uptight steward Malvolio is the heart and driving force of this production.
Rivalling Mackinnon for the best-acting chops is Jonathan Slinger as an outstanding Malvolio both in his prim household managerial mode and when discomfited by the teasing, and parading in the (won’t spoil the surprise) outfit they make him wear. It’s low comedy and could be crude were it not for the impressive quality of the acting: the scene where Kevin McGonagle as Feste dresses up as a monk to torment Slinger by ‘inquisition’ is pure Peter Sellers.
Just don’t take your gran if she’s shocked by fetish gear.
Twelfth Night continues in repertory with The Comedy of Errors and The Tempest with the same cast in all three plays, at the Roundhouse until 5 July. Schedule and ticketing here.