Play On: Twelfth Night at the RSC

  • RSC Twelfth Night: Photo - Andrew Fox
  • RSC Twelfth Night: Photo - Andrew Fox
  • RSC Twelfth Night: Photo - Andrew Fox
  • RSC Twelfth Night: Photo - Andrew Fox

Director Christopher Luscombe tells all about Stratford’s hilarious new Twelfth Night - which sees comic Adrian Edmondson pulling on the iconic yellow stockings of Malvolio.

You were last in Stratford with the RSC directing the hit productions of Love’s Labours Lost and Much Ado About Nothing in 2014. Could you tell us what you’re looking forward to about working in Stratford again?

Working in Stratford is a dream for a director. You have such a great team around you, and everyone, in all the different departments, is so highly skilled. You can really be ambitious in planning the production, confident that your colleagues will bend over backwards to realise what you have in mind. In Twelfth Night we're aiming for something pretty spectacular, and I know that the workshops are excited by the challenge.

Could you tell us how you first got into directing?

I was an actor for many years, including a seven year stint at the RSC. While I was working for the Company in the early ‘90s I devised a show called The Shakespeare Revue - comic songs and sketches inspired by Shakespeare. This started life as a Sunday night charity show and I directed it for fun really. But the show took on a life of its own, and before long we found ourselves performing it in the West End.

I loved the whole process of directing, and so I decided to tackle a play. One thing led to another, and here I am now, back at the RSC but this time with my director's hat on.

What was it that appealed to you about directing Twelfth Night?

I'm fascinated by comedy, and have spent most of my life working on funny material in one way or another. But I suppose my favourite comic writing has a bit of darkness in it too.

Twelfth Night is generally thought of as Shakespeare's greatest comedy, and some of it is hilarious - but there's sadness as well, and a lot of the characters are dealing with difficult emotions. There's bereavement and unrequited love and loneliness in amongst the farce of mistaken identity. So I think it's going to be really interesting to find the balance between all these elements.

Your last RSC productions were designed based on the interior and exterior of Charlecote Park, just down the road from Stratford. Is there anything you can tell us about the design and concept for the this new production?

Yes, I love putting Shakespeare plays in specific locations and periods. Twelfth Night mainly takes place in two different locations - Olivia's manor house and Orsino's court. I've decided to place Olivia in the country, and we're basing the design on Wightwick Manor, just outside Wolverhampton.

It's a magnificent late-Victorian family house, designed according to the rules laid down by Oscar Wilde in his lecture The House Beautiful. Wilde was a devotee of the so-called Aesthetic Movement, which grew out of William Morris's beliefs about interior design. It's a very beguiling look. We're visualising Orsino in the city, and we've given him a bachelor pad based on Leighton House in Holland Park. It's chic and glamorous, and gives his material a very particular feel.

I’m setting the three scenes that take place between these locations in railway stations, as the characters travel back and forth. The set designer, Simon Higlett, has worked wonders to conjure up all these different worlds.

Adrian Edmondson is playing the role of Malvolio. What do you think he’ll bring to that comic role being known for being a comedian and playing comedy roles on TV?

Ade and I have been trying to find a play to do together for quite a long time now. I wanted someone for Malvolio who has 'funny bones' - an actor who is instinctively funny, and doesn't have to work too hard to make an audience laugh. But anyone who saw Ade in War and Peace on television will know that he's also a wonderful straight actor, and he'll be expert at finding what really makes Malvolio tick.

Similarly, I've been keen to work with Kara Tointon. She's also well-known from her television work, but is a brilliant stage actress, and has the wit and intelligence that is needed to play Olivia. I know that both Ade and Kara are very excited to be making their RSC debut in Twelfth Night - it's a play that all actors seem to love.

You’re working with composer Nigel Hess on the music for Twelfth Night, who you’ve worked with before. How big a part does music play in the whole feeling of the production?

I think there's more music specified in the text of Twelfth Night than in any other Shakespeare play. There's the famous line 'If music be the food of love, play on', and the characters quite often break into song or play instruments.

I'm lucky to have a composer like Nigel, who is a past master at setting Shakespeare's verse to glorious, tuneful music, and who seems to be able to compose in any style. In this instance, we're specifically recreating the popular music of the late 19th Century, so there's lots of reference to Music Hall, parlour ballads, Gilbert and Sullivan - as well as a nod to Chopin and Liszt!

Music, rather like lighting and design, can be so helpful in creating an atmosphere that suits the play, and Twelfth Night has given Nigel a huge range of possibilities. But I think it's fair to say that the overall feel will be Romantic with a capital ‘R'.

Twelfth Night plays at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, 2 November 2017 - 24 February 2018. Visit www.rsc.org.uk for booking and further details.

Images: Andrew Fox