It begins with an empty, black stage. Well, almost empty. There’s a huge box fan stage left, backlit with a spot. A single figure in a shabby black suit appears, with a microphone. And then, the storm. The besuited actor whistles like a breeze, howls like the wind, roars like crashing waves. The fan starts up and blows smoke across the stage. A dilapidated piano appears from the depths of the enormous, cavernous stage, is wheeled centre stage, and becomes a float for Olivia and the Captain, while a third figure hammers the keyboard, adding to the general atmosphere of chaos and confusion, and while others pour and pour water from plastic bottles into the fan. It’s the shipwreck. And when the storm is over, Olivia climbs down from the piano, comes all the way downstage, looks out over the audience, and stands still. “What country is this?”

The opening to Matthias Hartmann’s Twelfth Night is its strongest moment. Beautifully theatrical, it conjures up a tempest out of nothing but sound, fog, and emptiness, and it moves from exploiting the vastness of the Burgtheater’s stage to the surprising intimacy this space is also capable of. But the production never again gets quite as interesting or quite as effective.

This is a Twelfth Night governed by the spirit of Sir Toby – or really, that of Sir Andrew Aguecheek. It’s relentlessly funny. Which is to say, it’s funny – very. But it’s also only funny. Which sometimes works very well: Orsino’s opening scene, when it eventually arrives, is much more cutting than in many English productions I’ve seen. Orsino is pathetic from the get go, his “that strain again” repeated four or five times, because the player can never get it right (a running gag – Feste later will torment him by playing wrong song after wrong song when Orsino asks for last night’s tune), with Orsino getting pointlessly and hysterically exasperated. And sometimes it doesn’t work well at all, like when Antonio becomes a camp sailor played with such over-the-top queenliness that there is no room for pain left. Similarly, the sheer pathos of Sir Andrew’s “I was adored once too” doesn’t register at all – that’s a line that can cut through the silliness of the play, open up a vista of the despair and the loneliness of so many of its characters long before the brutal ending, but in Hartmann’s production, it barely registers. Even the ending manages to lose all bite – it’s chaotic, and fast, and fun; but it’s so chaotic, and fast, and fun that Toby’s rejection of Andrew, Antonio’s unresolved singularity, the wonderful weirdness of Orsino’s refusal to call Olivia Olivia, the forcedness of Viola’s and Sebastian’s marriage, and even Malvolio’s curse hardly matter. To be sure, things fall into place very arbitrarily in the end, and that works – but Hartmann seems completely uninterested in who gets left behind once people have, arbitrarily, coupled off. (In fact, as the platform on which everyone is standing at the end recedes upstage, very far upstage, to the tune of Feste’s final song, people start hugging and kissing and rolling around with whomever they’re next to. Couples, sexual preference, attraction, all of these aren’t just arbitrary, they’re provisional at best in this production. Not an uninteresting take on the play, to be sure, but one that dissolves pain and misery in bubbly carnival – that flattens the highs and lows of the play into a general jolliness.)

Joachim Meyerhoff’s Malvolio is the principle victim of this approach. It’s a virtuoso performance, kinetic, unafraid, wilfully ridiculous and ugly. But whenever the figure gets close to opening up in some way, threatens to make us sympathize in spite of his ridiculousness, the production shuts him down. Malvolio’s prison is a coffin-sized cell that rises from and descends into the stage; when Sir Topaz performs his exorcism, we see Malvolio on a video screen, in green night vision. This could have been an image of terror: who deserves to be treated like that? What exactly has Malvolio done to merit such treatment? Why shouldn’t we sympathise with him at this point? (Especially as this Malvolio is so funny that he’s added to rather than hindered our please.) But the production turns Feste’s exorcism into a pathetic quiz show and does its best to make Malvolio look pathetic, to make the scene funny rather than in any way moving, terrifying, or problematic.

The ending almost gives Malvolio his due, but not quite: he seems to have left, the stage is empty, Feste is singing his song, when Meyerhoff reemerges from the depth of the dark space, no longer in yellow garters but dressed properly in his old grey suit again. He unplugs Feste microphone, cutting the song short. And then he turns to us, counting heads, taking notes, marking us out for accomplices of his tormenters: “So. This will be reported,” he announces. “I’ll get the lot of you.” And blackout. It’s a neat moment, almost chilling. But like the opening, it felt to me like a hint of what this production could have been if it hadn’t pursuit our laughter quite so single-mindedly. Meyerhof here turned on a dime, switched from a hilarious caricature to a frightening grotesque. The play is full of such switches, and Hartmann has the actors who could easily pull them off (the great Nicholas Ofczarek’s Sir Toby is the most obvious example: an actor more than capable of becoming dangerous at a second’s notice, playing a character who can get very nasty very fast, here seems stuck in a very funny but also quite safe permanent drunken stupor). But Hartmann pays barely any attention to the darkness in Twelfth Night. His Illyria is consistently bright, poppy, bubbly, fun – a place, as the enormous green backdrop studded in pink and red blossoms suggests, where everything is coming up roses.

(A quick postscript on text and characterisation: in some ways, this was the most West-End-like show I’ve seen in a German-speaking theatre. Or the most like a DesMcAnuff-style Stratford production. Pratfalls and physical gags aplenty, no joke left unmilked, no double take that couldn’t become a triple or quadruple take if a laugh could be earned for it. Characterization in general was consistent with that: oodles of playfulness, but little of the self-reflectiveness that I’ve so often written about as a hallmark of modern German stage acting. Where the show was nothing like any English Shakespeare I’ve ever seen, however, and where it shared the general attitude I’ve seen elsewhere on German-language stages, was in its treatment of the text. In one way, this was a surprisingly complete production, without any major cuts and only a few rearranged scenes. But its actors were strikingly free to interpolate, to repeat, to stretch out lines where- and whenever they felt like it. Orsino’s scenes were maybe the most remarkable in this regard: Fabian Krueger adlibbed at will, throwing verbal ticks into his lines, drawing on a whole arsenal of imperious noises and little phrases. As nearly always, I found the gains of such an approach far outweighed the losses, especially since Krueger was perfectly able to switch into a more focussed mode when that seemed to make better theatrical sense. I suppose there is something to be said for the extreme economy of gesture that the Anglophone obsession with faithfulness to Shakespeare’s text produces – I’m thinking of moments such as Mark Rylance’s Viola putting her face in his hands in self-exasperation after the first Cesario scene, a hilarious, revelatory, and entirely effective choice that interprets the text without altering it one bit. But I’m increasingly skeptical that the integrity of Shakespeare’s verse can be an end in itself. In my experience, there is very little evidence to back up the notion that an actor in service to Shakespeare’s text can produce more powerful performances than an actor free to play with that text.)

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