Year of Shakespeare: Twelfth Night

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This post is part of Year of Shakespeare, a project documenting the World Shakespeare Festival, the greatest celebration of Shakespeare the world has ever seen.

 

Twelfth Night, Company Theatre, dir. Atul Kumar, 28 April 2012 at The Globe, London.

By Peter J. Smith, Nottingham Trent University

I was on tenterhooks for Andrew’s idiotic self-diagnosis: ‘but I am a great eater of beef, and I believe that does harm to my wit’ (1.3.84).  Would the line, which used to generate so much awkward laughter during the BSE crisis of the Thatcher years, cause a diplomatic incident in front of an audience whose religion forbids the eating of beef?  Would the much vaunted global dimension of Shakespeare’s works hit an impasse of cultural difference which would demonstrate, finally, his Anglo-insularity?  Might a play from the period of Elizabeth Tudor be less than ‘kaleidoscopic’ in the period of Elizabeth Windsor?  Well, he seems to have got away with it; indeed, this production, travelling at near the speed of light, if it used the line at all, skimmed rapidly on.  (I couldn’t be sure if the line occurred since the surtitles were synoptic, vague and often referred to previous scenes rather than translating what the actors were saying.)

This was populist Shakespeare, in a populist space, for an audience who whooped, cheered, jeered, clapped and waved their arms at the tiniest invitation.  There was a pantomime excess, a cartoon-like explicitness about the performances which transformed Shakespeare’s painful play about grief and the embarrassment of love to a carefree romp, punctuated throughout with musical numbers and a comedic obviousness which would make The Benny Hill Show look subtle!  For instance, as the twins stood opposite each other, the rest of the company looked from one to the other, their heads turning in unison like a Wimbledon crowd in time to a percussive ‘tick-tock’.  Elsewhere as Olivia (Mansi Multani) declared her love for Cesario with long operatic notes, her head flung back, Sebastian (Amitosh Nagpal) struggled clumsily to undo her dress, tugging at the fastenings at her throat and, with increasing desperation, trying to gnaw his way through them.  There was no room in this light-hearted production for the cruel taunting in Malvolio’s mad-cell (which was cut) or the emotional devastation of Antonio (who did not appear at all).

So much the better.  I was assured by the Hindi-speaking woman sitting next to me that the translation ‘is a modern prose version which is accessible for people who wouldn’t normally come to the theatre’.  Shakespeare, thankfully, is not the gentlemen’s club he used to be, nor am I pining for the confident pronouncements of The Elizabethan World Picture – anything that makes my profession less recondite is fine with me.  The thing is that there are parts of Twelfth Night that cause the emotions to well up; the delicacy of Viola’s ‘patience on a monument’ (2.4.114) or Olivia’s pathetic self-abasement as she offers herself to the ungrateful boy (3.4.212) illustrate the painful dimensions of Shakespeare’s sympathy as well as the bewildering incision of his imagination.  We got none of that here.

At the centre of this burlesque reading was Geetanjali Kulkarni’s impish Viola.  During the play’s opening sequence she was surrounded by the rest of the company who bound up her chest, bunched up her long hair and transformed her into a boy.  Cesario emerged from the melee, flexing his arms to show off his biceps and affecting an illustrious swagger.  As Olivia stood behind the page and caressed him, Cesario deftly folded his arms over Viola’s breasts to prevent her identity being discovered – this with a knowing look of alarm at the audience who were eager conspirators in the deception.  The unsubtle playing style necessitated the full transformation of Cesario back to Viola in order to express her love for Orsino.  Having accepted the jewel that he was to deliver to Olivia, Cesario / Viola, wiped off his make-up moustache, and undid her long hair, kneeling to sing a lament and finally fall asleep across the downstage edge of the stage.  When it came, the passion required conspicuous underlining.

The pantomimic style was at its height during the below-stairs scenes.  Maria, Andrew and Toby (Trupti Khamkar, Mantra Mugdha and Gagan Riar) sang and danced their way through their drinking scenes, Toby, at every opportunity, delving his hands into Andrew’s pockets.  At one point each knight danced across the stage to steal Maria from the other so that she was jostled from side to side like a ping-pong ball.

Saurabh Nayyar’s tall and dignified Malvolio wore skin-tight and dangerously diaphanous yellow tights.  While the couples swapped garlands of marriage flowers, he offered his with a smile to one of the groundlings before placing it round his own neck.  Feste’s lonely melancholy song was here a choral piece for the entire company – a gesture which demonstrated once and for all the generosity and inclusiveness of the production.  This was a Twelfth Night full of holiday optimism rather than January blues.

 

To read more reviews of the performances and events that are a part of the World Shakespeare Festival, visit Year of Shakespeare.

 

Want to watch this production online? Click on the image below to watch it for free at THE SPACE:

 

Listen below to an interview with the director and assistant director, recorded by the Globe Education Department:

Here’s what other audience members thought of the production:

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Author:Peter J Smith

Peter is Reader in Renaissance Literature at Nottingham Trent University. His publications include Social Shakespeare: Aspects of Renaissance Dramaturgy and Contemporary Society and Hamlet: Theory in Practice. He is UK correspondent of Cahiers Elisabéthains and in 2007 he co-edited a special number of the journal dedicated to the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Complete Works Festival.

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  • Paul Edmondson

    I wonder how far the definite change of tone was dictated by the different language and cultural context? I prefer my ‘Twelfth Night’s to tug at the heart-strings!

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