If Hamlet is my favourite of Shakespeare’s tragedies, then Twelfth Night is my favourite comedy – not terribly original, I know, but there it is. Neither is it terribly original to point out that for a comedy, Twelfth Night has an element inherent sadness and wistfulness, the melancholia hangs like a veil over even the most comedic moments in the play.
Written around the turn of the 16th and 17th century, Twelfth Night tells a tale of twins: Viola and Sebastian who shipwreck on the coast of Illyria both thinking the other dead. For reasons, Viola decides to dress up as a boy and finds employment at the service of the ruler of Illyria, duke Orsino. The Duke is terribly in love with countess Olivia who is mourning her brother and wants nothing with the Duke’s suit. As one might suspect, Viola falls for the duke and Olivia with Cesario (Viola-as-a-boy). It is indeed, as Viola says to the time: “thou must untangle this, not I; It is too hard a knot for me to untie!” And time chooses to stir the pot by sending Sebastian, who of course looks just like Cesario to Illyria too.
The subplot concerns Olivia’s drunken uncle Toby and his efforts to get his niece to marry a silly knight Sir Andrew Aguecheek, and Olivia’s servants’ common effort to take her majordomo, stuffy Malvolio down a peg.
My favourite production is Renaissance Theatre Company's wintery and romantically melancholy production from 1980s, which transposes the action to Victorian era and has especially fine Feste in Anthony Lester, and deliciously pompous Malvolio in Richard Briers. This National Theatre production also transposes the action, this time to modern time and though it won't unseat the RTC production as my favourite, it was nonetheless extremely interesting take on the play.
There are a number of Shakespeare’s plays playing on gender and sexuality: a boy actor playing a girl who dresses up as a boy. Who is really attracted to whom? This modern interpretation of the Twelfth Night is not the first to play with this dynamic, but it puts the question of gender front and centre: Sebastian’s saviour Antonio’s canonical love for his charge is decidedly carnal, and Orsino is obviously having a re-think of his sexuality when wrestling with Cesario. Simon Godwin’s direction goes further by casting Fabio, Feste and especially Malvolio as women, and thus underlining that the modern interpretation happens in the world were gay marriage is a fact: Malvolia can dream of marrying Olivia. It is an interesting take on the play that nudges the text just enough to make it seem different.
The production has great design and sound world, and I have to admit I love productions that integrate musicians to the play and bring them on the stage as this does. The pacing is good, and though there is a bit too much physicality to my liking, it does not detract from the poetry.
The acting is uniformly of quality. Phoebe Fox brings to Olivia a wonderful vulnerability, she clumsily overdoes her seduction of Cesario and does recognize when that crosses over to actual harassment in the pool scene. Tamara Lawrence is a bit at sea (pardon the pun) in the beginning, but as Cesario she really shines. Oliver Chris’s Orsino is a bit of an ageing Romeo, but has enough charm to see what Cesario sees in him. Sir Toby is deliciously played by Tim McMullan as a permanently drunken rock star in tight jeans and velvet jacket, and Daniel Rigby’s Sir Andrew livens the proceedings with a manbun, pink socks and physical comedy.
But there were also problems, or maybe necessary exchanges. Modern setting brings into the focus the themes of gender, sexuality and even sexual harassment, but does erase other power structures in the play. Feste and the maid, Maria, are dependent on Olivia’s good will, as is Sir Toby’s income. Malvolio, as the majordomo of the household, is also in position of power over the staff, and conversely, one of the reason he relishes his potential marriage to Olivia is to put Sir Toby on his place. Feste, as a Shakespearean fool, tells the truth to power and there is an inherent danger in doing that, that the modern production does not capture. All in all, Feste is the character most difficult to transplant to modern age, and though Doon Mackichan does a good job, especially in the party scene, the character remains a bit of an enigma.
Another exchange was Tamsin Greig’s Malvolia. Her work is so superb it somewhat unbalances the play. Malvolia really is in love with her employer, the letter scene is a revelation to her and to us, and the interplay between audience and Greig is electrifying. And when she appears before the baffled Olivia in yellow stockings and cross-gartered her ridiculousness is mellowed by true feeling.
But: I have always read the play so, that Malvolio is not in love with Olivia, he sees the letter as an opportunity to rise his own station. The greatness is thrust upon him, he will accept it, and use it to humiliate Sir Toby, Maria and Feste. Thus when he is thrown into a dark cell, it is a comeuppance to a petty marionette with delusions of grandeur. But poor Malvolia, a kill-joy that she is, is nevertheless a woman who takes a chance on love and is cruelly punished for it. It is heart-rending and wrong, and really wholly undercuts the happy end of Olivia and Sebastian and Viola and Orsino. In this production, the rainy melancholy truly carries the day.