Year of Shakespeare: Twelfth Night at the RSCComedyYear of Shakespeare

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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, Royal Shakespeare Company, dir. by David Farr, 25 April 2012 at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon.

By Peter J Smith, Nottingham Trent University

How cynical that a season of maritime plays (entitled “The Shipwreck Plays”: The Comedy of Errors, Twelfth Night and The Tempest) should be sponsored by British Petroleum, the company whose Deepwater Horizon disaster in 2010 caused 11 deaths and the spilling of 4.9 million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, trashing its vulnerable ecosystem.  How refreshing then that two protestors jumped up onto the stage before anyone could stop them and sang a (rather cacophonous, it must be admitted) song about “the BP story”, “deepwater despair” and the “green and yellow melancholy” (the colour of BP’s ironically budding flower) brought about by the industrialised rape of one of the two remaining unspoilt continents on the planet.  While the theatre ushers looked nervously on, the protesters finished their song to the harrumphing and cries of “Shameful!” from Mr Angry of Tunbridge Wells and the tinkling laughter of embarrassed schoolchildren.  More fool me to expect anything more enlightened from the Stratford demographic but the episode served to remind one that theatre can be (should be?) a place of protest as well as complacency.

Illyria, in answer to Viola’s opening question, was a trashed beach resort from the 1960s.  Jon Bausor’s busy set was the reception of a hotel that had seen better days.  Stage-centre was a stained upholstered bench that wrapped around what would have been a classical column but the stone cladding was gone to reveal rusty reinforcing wires.  Upstage left was a reception desk complete with battered pigeon-holes for residents’ keys and messages as well as a computer and an intercom system.  Upstage right was an old metallic lift with concertina doors and an illuminated floor-indicator – which allowed us to see that Malvolio’s mad-cell was merely the darkened basement of the hotel foyer.  Upstage of all of this was Olivia’s bed chamber, set at a vertiginous tilt with a bucket to catch the rain drops that plopped through the ceiling of cracked plaster and exposed laths.  Perched beyond her bed was a roll-top bathtub at an unfeasible angle.  Next to the reception, stage-left, was a filthy revolving glass-door (which provided Malvolio with an answer to the enigmatic instruction in the letter, “If this fall into thy hand, revolve” [II.5.137] – he did a full 360 degree cycle) over which an illuminated exit sign hung crookedly by one fixing.  Downstage right was a diving board which protruded over a large glass-sided tank about chest-deep in water.  From this both Viola and Sebastian appeared suddenly, gasping their panicked release from the never-surfeited sea.

The Orsino / Olivia / Cesario love triangle was missing a side.  While Kirsty Bushell’s feisty Olivia cajoled, knelt before and eventually subdued Cesario (Viola was played by Emily Taaffe); the scenes between Jonathan McGuinness’s Orsino and his page lacked the delicacy, desperation or self-deception of their flirtatious courtship (the job of which is to prepare them – and us – for their eventual and opportunistic union).  McGuinness’s Duke displayed hardly any interest or empathy as he asked Cesario about her melancholy sister.  Similarly his enquiries about Cesario’s older girlfriend were merely barroom banter, hidden under a rapid bluster before he was able to turn the conversation back to his own wooing (by proxy).  Of course, Orsino’s self-importance can reasonably eclipse his interest in his page but it meant that Viola’s desperate hints – “What kind of woman is’t?”, “Of your complexion” (II.4.25) – went for very little.

Most of the investment of this production was in the tensions between the understairs revellers and the puritanical steward.  Slinger’s Malvolio wore a blonde comb-over toupee and a pencil moustache.  His expression was fixed into a disdainful glower, his very stare enough to push the quivering Andrew off the end of the diving board and into the pool.  His yellow stockings were a sort of skin-tight rubber, some sort of bizarre fetish accessory, while his black and yellow codpiece was worn on a thong so that the prospect of him working his way up a steel ladder like a lurching Richard III left plenty of naked wobbling arse on display to arouse audience groans.  It was an easy option, but no less appallingly funny for that!

Ranged against him were Nicholas Day’s Toby and Bruce Mackinnon’s Andrew, the former in Hawaiian shirt and scruffy shorts and the latter in a blazer topped off with a yellow cravat – “a colour she [Olivia] abhors” (II.5.193).  Toby was too drunk to be calculated in his exploitation of Andrew and the real force of the malevolent box-tree scene was Felix Hayes’s sonorously bassy Fabian.  Andrew’s top-knot survived the imposition of a crash helmet and, amusingly, stood to attention when he removed it (his “horse, grey Capulet” [III.4.278] became “my Kawasaki 750”, though wouldn’t the timid Andrew be more likely to be riding a moped?).

The casting off of the setting’s oppression came in an instant of enlightenment.  As Olivia exits to marry Sebastian accompanied by the priest, she remarks, “lead the way good father, and heavens so shine, / That they may fairly note this act of mine” (IV.3.34-4).  At “heavens so shine” she tugged on a rope next to the staircase and the sun suddenly shone in through the gaps in the roof.  It was as though the spider-webbed wedding chamber of Miss Havisham had been suddenly illuminated.  The moment symbolised the production’s assured optimism so that even Malvolio’s dark and timely promise to be revenged on the whole pack of you or Feste’s closing melancholy song did not threaten the production’s feel-good ending.  As Feste, to the accompaniment of a cheesy portable keyboard, sang of the play’s being done, the four lovers took their place on the bed upstage, emparadised in one others’ arms.  For all the pain inflicted on the play’s losers (Malvolio, Antonio, Andrew), the final sequence was harmlessly and rather disappointingly benevolent.

An extended version of this review will appear in the next issue of Cahiers Élisabéthains.

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Author: PeterJSmith

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.