Presented by the Brooklyn Academy of Music, casting by Anne McNulty, at the BAM Harvey Theater, 651 Fulton St., Brooklyn, NYC, Jan. 10-March 9 (in repertory with "Uncle Vanya").
Sadly, this superb production is acclaimed director Sam Mendes' last production for the Donmar Warehouse, the justly celebrated London theatre company that he founded.
Donmar has become famous for presenting more contemporary works, including quite a few American plays, so "Twelfth Night" is not exactly typical Donmar fare, contrary to one's expectations about an English company. Nevertheless, it's hardly surprising that the company pulls off this plotty and verbose Shakespearean comedy with seemingly effortless style and grace.
As with Donmar's "Uncle Vanya," running in repertory with "Twelfth Night," Mendes is not shy to take risks and to acknowledge the inherent difficulty of performing a text that is quite old. Hence, this is a "Twelfth Night" where the cast takes on an almost Edwardian air, where speeches are appropriately touched up, where the humor of the play is gleefully presented.
This is apparent from the start, as we are greeted by Anthony Ward's fabulous set of hundreds of burning candles, many suspended from up high. As we are dazzled by the wax and fire, Mendes presents the long, usually tedious explanatory speech of the sea captain in a highly unusual way, giving it to several actors standing in a kind of square. The intention is to acknowledge that the speech is a prologue, thus preventing it from mucking up the early action; the effect is that the usual slow start is leavened, allowing the proceedings to proceed apace.
As aided by such modifications, the cast is certainly exceptional, with Helen McCrory's Olivia standing out as particularly tart and expressive. Emily Watson is a sweet and sympathetic Viola, Mark Strong a fully appropriate Orsino, Anthony O'Donnell a hilariously glib Feste, David Bradley a suitably silly Andrew Aguecheek, Paul Jesson a vivid Sir Toby Belch, and Simon Russell Beale a simply perfect and devastatingly sad Malvolio.