If this "Twelfth Night" is not the definitive "Twelfth Night," it comes close. Under the guidance of director Trevor Nunn, the superb cast plays Shakespeare not only for laughs but also for the dark pathos that underlies the comedy, as is evident in Feste's song, "Come away, come away death, and in sad cypress let me be laid." Ben Kingsley portrays Shakespeare's enigmatic clown, whose rendition of the charming, but usually conventional, "O mistress mine, where are you roaming?," is tinged with a tragic undertone. It not only complements the love-sick Duke Orsino's lament, "If music be the food of love, play on," but, as its last strains linger in the air, it suffuses its listeners with an inexpressible sadness. It is as if, with the final notes, the hitherto roistering Maria, Sir Toby, and Sir Andrew, have become painfully aware of the ephemeral nature of life.
Imogen Stubbs is a delightful (and plausibly male) Viola, disguised as Cesario, who must act as a go-between for Orsino (an incredibly handsome Toby Stephens) and Olivia (Helena Bonham-Carter, who looks as if she has stepped out of a pre-Raphaelite painting). The scenes between Viola and Orsino, as she is falling in love with him and he is most definitely attracted to his young "man" and emissary, are fraught with an almost palpable sexual tension, which Nunn's direction nevertheless conveys with subtle artistry (A similar dynamic may well have been present in the original production when the audience knew that a boy was playing the part of a girl playing the part of a boy.). Viola and her twin brother Sebastian look reasonably enough alike so that the audience can easily suspend its disbelief and, along with the characters, enjoy the confusion about "Which one is Sebastian?."
The production is reinforced by an ensemble cast. Nigel Hawthorne's pompous yet vulnerable Malvolio has the viewer laughing at one moment and crying at the next. The cruel pranks of Maria (Imelda Staunton), Sir Toby Belch (Mel Smith), Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Richard E. Grant) and Feste, the clown, bring Malvolio deservedly low, but as he leaves the household and his tormenters forever, the audience realizes that the comic conspirators may have humiliated him, but they have not robbed him of his dignity. Malvolio's exit is followed by the departure of the brooding Feste, who, "with a hey, ho, and the wind and the rain," strolls along the edge of a cliff above the shore. As he gazes out over the restless sea, he seems to be seeing beyond the play's comic narrative frame into the reality of a future that is ineffably dark.
Nunn's "Twelfth Night" is fast-moving and suspenseful, even if one has seen the play dozens of times. There are so many delightful moments that it is difficult to single one out, but the duel in the orchard between the terrified Viola and the equally frantic Sir Andrew is hysterically funny. The Cornish settings make for a stunning "Illyria." And since the audience is readily transported to that fantastic country, the pre-Raphaelite / Ruritanian costumes and settings do not spoil the illusion.