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LAST NIGHT'S FIRST NIGHT: Mendes brings the Bard to life; KEVIN O'SULLIVAN on Twelfth Night at the Donmar Warehouse.

Byline: KEVIN O'SULLIVAN

IN Shakespeare's last and most complex comedy Twelfth Night, goodness knows, anything goes.

As we join our twin heroes Viola and Sebastian they have been shipwrecked and washed up separately in the weird land of Illyria.

Each distraught siblings believes the other has perished at sea. But it is the disasters ashore that conspire to run almost every character in this extraordinary play aground.

In the oddball province where Orsino Duke of Illyria rules, nothing can be taken at face value.

Thus, to make her way in the man's world of her new environment, Viola reinvents herself as Cesario, faithful male servant to the apparently near-sighted Orsino.

Viola presents herself as a eunuch but only she knows that the unkindest cut of all was never necessary.

And so it continues. Farce-like, complicated, clever and utterly engrossing. The Countess Olivia falls hopelessly in love with Cesario after he/she is sent with a message of devotion from the hapless Orsino.

Only when the missing twin Sebastian turns up does Olivia, another character who seems to lack decent powers of observation, get what she thinks she's after.

Meanwhile Olivia's socially ambitious steward Malvolio gets stitched up in spades by a gang of drunks who conspire to puncture his pomposity.

As the boozy ne'er-do-wells Sir Toby Belch and Sir Andrew Aguecheek, Paul Jesson and David Bradley are simply hilarious. Their exquisite comic performances would prove to any schoolboy that the Bard was a bloody funny playwright.

Film star and actress supreme Emily Watson - of Breaking of the Waves - is excellent as the cross-dressing Viola. But Helen McCrory as Olivia stole the show and garnered a whole load of laughs with her sheer lovestruck stupidity. But it would be pointless to compare notes among a pretty-much faultless cast.

This is about as good as Shakespeare can be.

What an exemplary production for Sam Mendes to bid his farewell to the Donmar Warehouse on. He seems to be a film man now. An Oscar winner with a high-profile celebrity romance with Kate Winslet to boot.

But no one who saw his first-class goodbye show last night would want Sam to stay away from the theatre too long.

Twelfth Night is the play that gets the sisterhood going. The drama in which women prove they are every bit the match of men.

The egalitarian saga in which the social scale is challenged as aristocrats fall for servants and sex across the class divide becomes the norm.

All the dizzying action unfolds on a bare stage with merely candles for decoration. Such dramatic complexity is perfectly complimented by the simplicity of the set.

In the end it is not all hearts and flowers. As Sebastian, Olivia, Orsino, Viola, Toby and his woman Maria all get ready to marry, Malvolio, fabulously played by Simon Russell Beale, makes his final threat: "I'll be revenged - with the whole pack of you."

It has been more than 400 years since Mr Shakespeare penned this bizarre concoction.

Sam Mendes and his astonishing cast have proved more than anyone could that Twelfth Night will stand the test of time for centuries to come.

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LAUGHS: Helen McCrory as Olivia Picture: NIGEL NORRINGTON
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The Mirror (London, England)
Date:Oct 23, 2002
Words:533
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