David Farr’s Twelfth Night (together with Amir Nizar Zuabi’s The Comedy of Errors and Farr’s The Tempest) formed what the Royal Shakespeare Company called “Shakespeare’s Shipwreck Trilogy,” the opening segment of its World Shakespeare Festival. The play was set in the lobby of a seedy seaside hotel that seemed at first to suggest the South Pacific (a locale out of Somerset Maugham). But the costumes and the appearance in 4.3 of an Orthodox priest finally made clear that the hotel was meant to be somewhere in contemporary Illyria.
A runway for exits and entrances extended diagonally from the left corner of the thrust stage. A revolving door, the entrance to the hotel, stood farther up, at the left edge of the stage. The front desk, with a message-rack behind it, was up and to the right of the door. A long staircase was anchored farther up, on the right side of the stage, and behind it, closer to the center, was a rickety elevator with a sliding metal accordion door. A couch at center stage suggested the lobby lounge. The floor of the stage curved upwards (like a wave) at the back, and a large bed, at what seemed a 45-degree angle to the lobby of the hotel, rested [End Page 594] against it. A small swimming pool, with a diving board, formed the right corner of the stage.
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The various features of the set were integrated into the action of the play. The front desk became the hiding place for Toby, Andrew, and Fabian during the box tree scene. The revolving door provided a place for Malvolio to “revolve” when he read Maria’s letter (he paused, ran across the stage, and whirled through it) and for Orsino and Viola to circle around in at Olivia’s “husband, stay” in 5.1. The second act began with a jolt to the audience as Sir Andrew, suitcase in hand, rushed headlong down the staircase, ran over to the front desk, and called out, “No, faith, I’ll not stay a jot longer.” The elevator brought Malvolio in his yellow stockings slowly down to the stage, delaying his appearance and so creating a comic grand entrance. Sebastian at one point (3.3) sat on the couch where he was warmly greeted, much to his confusion, by two security guards who mistook him for Cesario.
Olivia was asleep on the bed at the start of the play, and she remained there until, at the end of 1.3, she woke up, screamed, and walked off the stage. As the play began, Viola emerged from the pool, and, addressing the audience, asked, “What country, friends, is this”? (The first words of the play, “if music be the food of love,” immediately followed her question: [End Page 595] 1.2 then continued after 1.1). Later, at the end of 1.4, Sebastian crawled exhausted from the pool and lay motionless on the stage throughout 1.5. Although it sometimes seemed likely (when, for example, Olivia climbed onto the diving board to escape Malvolio), no one actually fell in.
Whether by design or default, Jonathan Slinger’s Malvolio seemed the focal point of the production. He appeared first in a grey pinstriped suit and a gold name-tag, the manager of Olivia’s hotel, supercilious and officious in...