Shakespeare cast boy actors to play girls dressed as boys in love with boys. Peter Hall casts his beautiful daughter Rebecca in the same way, with mysterious and alluring results.
In “Twelfth Night” at London’s National Theatre, she plays Viola, a lady who decides to pass for a lad, and who then causes a storm of erotic triangulations.
She’s not the only famous scion in the cast. Finty Williams, the daughter of Judi Dench, gives a sparky performance as the cunning serving maid, Maria.
Best known as a fledgling film star (Vicky in Woody Allen’s “Vicky Cristina Barcelona”), Hall is delicately melancholy as the confused Viola. Dressed in a close-fitting burgundy doublet and breeches, she performs with great emotional clarity. Each passing thought finds expression on her face, and nothing is overstated. It’s a performance of subtlety and charm, and she looks fantastic.
On the downside, her default acting style veers toward the kind of low-key naturalism seen in upmarket television soaps. For all its clarity, it doesn’t always rise to the standard established by Shakespeare’s abundant language. Quotidian realism and blank verse aren’t necessarily the happiest bedfellows.
Perhaps it’s a directorial decision. This is the 80-year-old Hall’s fourth production of the play. Over the years his early experimental style has become plainer and pared-down.
There’s a point when “pared down” becomes “slow,” and sometimes this period-costume production arrives at it.
Duke Orsino (Marton Csokas) is portrayed as an effete lounger rather than a fiery lover, and his scenes tend to drag. David Ryall performs the misanthropic role of the fool Feste in a quiet expressionless monotone, with predictably monotonous results.
Anthony Ward’s set comprises just one huge sail-like awning over the stage, and is otherwise almost prop-free.
The production most fully comes alive in the comic scenes with Sir Toby Belch (a wonderfully fruity Simon Callow) and Andrew Aguecheek. Charles Edwards is hilariously puppyish and innocent in the latter role, and his winning energy and great line in physical comedy almost steal the show.
Almost. Rebecca Hall’s boyish-girlish melancholy will live in the memory too. Rating: ***.
There’s another memorable performance over the road at the Royal Opera House. Soprano Aleksandra Kurzak is Rosina in Rossini’s “The Barber of Seville,” and she sings up a storm. It’s clear that she adores dishing out all the tricks of the coloratura trade, and she does it superbly. Runs, trills, roulades, extra ornaments -- you name it, she’ll fling them out easily, and do so with infectious joy. Little wonder that recording label Decca has signed her as an exclusive artist.
As for the rest, the minimalist production (with a few stylized visual exaggerations) is no great shakes. Although there’s some gorgeous singing, the comedy fails to ignite.
What fizz there is comes from Rory Macdonald’s crackling conducting, and Kurzak’s electrifying voice. Rating: **.
“Twelfth Night” is in repertory through March 2 at the National Theatre. The production is part of a partnership with Neptune Investment Management. Information: http://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk or +44-20-7452-3000.
“Il barbiere di Siviglia” is in repertory at the Royal Opera House until Feb. 8. Information: http://www.roh.org.uk or +44-20-7304-4000.
(Warwick Thompson is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
What the Stars Mean: **** Excellent *** Good ** Average * Poor (No stars) Worthless