Director Sam Mendes marks his farewell as artistic
director of London’s Donmar Warehouse with a definitive production of
“Twelfth Night.” Bringing the bittersweet comedy to life is the cast Mendes
uses in "Uncle Vanya,” also a sell-out at
the Donmar. In presenting the two works in repertory with the same cast,
Mendes illuminates each. Both “Uncle Vanya” and “Twelfth Night” are works
about unrequited love and self-love, both use humor to lighten a prevailing
melancholy, and both shine with compassion for the all-too-human
Simon Russell Beale, living a life of quiet
desperation as Vanya, who loves the seductive but scornful Elena, is
Shakespeare’s Malvolio, tricked into revealing his passion for Olivia, both
women played by Helen McCrory.
is a languorous beauty in white lace as Elena, a seductive flirt in
see-through black as Olivia. As the pompous steward to Olivia, Beale seems
to take his cue from her caution to him, “Oh you are sick of self-love,
Malvolio, and taste with a distempered appetite.” He takes things too
seriously, she warns; “bird-bolts” he deems “cannon bullets.” He
disparages the fool Feste to Olivia, for Malvolio considers himself
superior in the hierarchy of the household.
Yet his insecurity is manifest not only in the way he
orders the other servants around, but in his meticulous neatness, cuffs and
pleated trousers exact and everything in place, even his waxed hair neatly
tucked in a hairnet when he bursts into the late-night revelry of Sir Toby
and his drinking companions. He constantly checks his watch (costumes are
30s) as if everyone except him is a timewaster. Although he must defer to
the titled Toby, uncle to Olivia, Malvolio takes it out on those over whom
he holds sway in the household, Olivia’s “waiting gentlewoman” Maria
(Selina Cadell) and Feste. The fool is wise enough to know that “the
whirligig of time brings in his revenges,” but Maria acts immediately.
Maria takes revenge by forging a letter
to Malvolio from Olivia, hinting love and advancement and encouraging him
to wear yellow stockings. Beale’s reading of it (in his bedroom rather than
the garden) is so emotionally revealing of this lonely man, that the device
becomes much more than a humorous prank. By the time Malvolio is treated
as a madman and put in a straitjacket, we feel and the pranksters realize
that the joke has gone sour.
Other victims of the self-love that Malvolio is
accused of are Olivia herself, boasting of her beauty as she futilely
attempts to ensnare Viola\Cesario, and also Orsino, who indulges in posing
as a melancholy, unrequited lover. Emily Watson’s shipwrecked Viola has no
time for self-love; to survive, she must find employment in Orsino’s
household as a servant, disguised as the boy Cesario. That her twin
Sebastian was saved from the shipwreck and arrives in Illyria will both
complicate and resolve the comic mistaken-identity mixups.
As one of Shakespeare’s most complex comedy
heroines, Ms. Watson is a heart-rending, appealing Viola, as she realizes
that her love for Orsino (who loves or thinks he loves Olivia), may never
come to fruition – she may pine away like “Patience on a monument/ Smiling
at grief” while Time, a theme throughout the play, robs her of her youth
and beauty. As Sonya in “Uncle Vanya,” Ms. Watson was equally affecting,
in love with Mark Strong’s doctor, who is in love with Elena. Mr. Strong
again is the object of Ms. Watson’s affections, as an extraordinarily human
Orsino, more dark and brooding than the character is generally performed.
You believe that this Orsino is truly melancholy, not just play-acting.
Anthony Ward has created a spare set, lit by candles
and lanterns, and dominated upstage by a large picture frame, through which
Viola first enters and in which appear from time to time characters
representing the obsessions of others. Malvolio, reading the forged
letter, sees Olivia there as he fantasizes that she loves him; Orsino sees
her there in black, unattainable as she grieves for her dead brother. When
Antonio mistakes Viola for Sebastian, her twin brother, we see him in the
frame, depicting her hope that he lives.
The trio of Sir Toby, Sir Andrew and Feste not only
contribute comedy, but also offer insight into Puritan-minded Malvolio.
Disapproving of drink, dance, and song, he cannot abide anyone else
enjoying these pastimes. When Sir Toby asks him, “Dost thou think because
thou art virtuous, there shall be no more cakes and ale?” Malvolio, who
cannot respond as he wishes to his employer’s uncle, turns around and
threatens Maria. Fat Toby (Paul Jesson) and his sidekick, skinny Andrew
(David Bradley), are surely the first Laurel and Hardy-like comic twosome,
while Anthony O’Connell makes of Feste a deeper character than usual. He is
the first to feel, while clowning with the imprisoned Malvolio, that their
practical joke is going wrong, and he sings beautifully the melancholy
lyrics “Come away, come away death” and “The rain it raineth every day”
that concludes the play.
The Merry Wives of Windsor
In Shakespeare’s only contribution to the popular genre of city comedy like
"Eastward Ho!", he depicts not London but the town of Windsor,
dominated then as now by its castle, seat of Elizabeths I and II.
Here the wives, Mistress Ford and Mistress Page,
their improbable suitor Sir John Falstaff. According to rumor, Shakespeare
wrote the play when Queen Elizabeth I ordered a comedy about “Falstaff in
love.” The fat Sir John of “King Henry IV” had delighted audiences at both
parts of that work, so much so that if audiences disapproved of a play on
the boards, they would call out “fat meat,” urging the actors to abandon
that work and instead enact a Henry IV play with their favorite, Falstaff.
In “The Merry Wives” Falstaff , a huge, shabby knight
with a thin purse is played by Richard Cordery. Yet his wit and at times
his body are nimble, twinkling at the thought that he is irresistible when
he writes the same love letter to both Alice Ford and Margaret Page, who
control the purse strings of their rich husbands. He relishes the
sparkling lines Shakespeare gave him, like his complaint at being doused in
the Thames along with the soiled linen, under which he had hidden in a
At the end, unlike Malvolio, he takes his punishment in good humor. As the
jealous Master Ford, Tom Mannion brings depth and seriousness to a
character usually played as farcical, although when he ends up falling into
the basket he frantically searches, he is paid for his irrationality. As
Alice and Margaret, Claire Carrie and Lucy Tregear use their quick wits
and ingenuity in defeating Falstaff’s advances and his inflated language.
When, proposing to make Alice a Lady, praising the “arched beauty” of her
brow and the fine hats that would become it, Alice replies, “A plain
kerchief, Sir John, my brows become [are becoming in] nothing else, nor
that well neither.”
Alison Fiske is both comic and clever as Mistress
Quickly, the doyenne of malapropism, outwitting not only Sir John but the
suitors to Ann Page, serving as their go-between and helping them all,
including Dr. Caius (Greg Hicks), a French physician whose mangled English
is another source of humor.
in the town is enlivened by a troupe of colorful characters like the doctor
and the Welsh parson who teaches Latin to Margaret’s son (with Mistress
Quickly, undeterred by her ignorance, providing obscene interpretations).
In addition, the pastimes and occupations of the middle-class men and
women, like hunting and dining, bleaching clothes, and staging a children’s
pageant provide a realistic background of everyday life in Elizabethan
Windsor that makes this comedy unique as well as a delight.