Somehow, I've managed to get through my school and uni days without ever studying Twelfth Night, and while I knew the general jist, it just happens to be one that I've inadvertantly avoided.
Knowing that it was a cross-dressing, mistaken identity play, I was concerned that it might be a bit of a trial to keep up, and director Neil Bartlett hardly made things easier by having women play the comedy roles of Sir Toby Belch, Sir Andrew Aguecheek and Fabian, and a man play Viola when she is pretending to be a man. But these decisions didn't lead to any confusion - in fact, in the case of the comedy characters, it was rather hard to understand why Bartlett had made the decision at all, as it made very little difference to the play. It didn't take anything from the play, but neither did it add anything, as it's already clear that issues of gender and cross-dressing are important, as the main storyline follows Viola's wooing of a Countess Olivia on her master's behalf - whom she loves - in male garb. As such, the decision to have Chris New play Viola made sense (and he portrayed her discomfort and awkwardness really well), but the extension of this to the comedy roles seemed a little arbitrary, funny as they were.
More interesting was the treatment of the fool, Feste. Here, he was not played simply for laughs, but became a narrator, commentator, musical accompianist (he played the piano which was permanently on stage), and actually a rather dark figure, who encourages Sir Toby, Sir Andrew and Maria as they play mind-games with Olivia's steward, Malvolio. He revels in Malvolio's madness as he is (wrongly) persuaded that Olivia loves him, and as a result, we feel Malvolio's abuse - as it is in fact called in the final scene - all the more keenly. It becomes much more than a ridiculous comic sub-plot.
Malvolio - you might remember - is played by John Lithgow, and he is brilliant. Well, he's pretty much playing the classic John Lithgow part -superior, deluded, generally disliked - but you can't say that's not incredibly funny. It's the stand-out performance of the night, along with Chris New and James Clyde (Feste), in a production otherwise lacking striking performances; the Duke and Olivia particularly never seemed to get out of second gear.
This production is genuinely funny, and the great performances really were great - but there are too many random choices and underwhelming performances to make it a classic.