This is not the Twelfth Night I thought I knew…
Twelfth Night is traditionally viewed as one of Shakespeare’s most enjoyable comedies, with cases of mistaken identity, a pair of drunken fools, some lighthearted ribaldry and a happy ending. Director Issy Snape has curated a production something that places intense scrutiny on the relationships between characters, the treatment of Malvolia and the supposed ease of solution in the play’s last scene.
The plot is, for Shakespeare, fairly simple. Two twins, Viola and Sebastian, are in a shipwreck; their parents are both drowned, and they are separated. Viola, believing herself alone in the world, takes on the guise of a man so as to better survive; Sebastian is taken in by a fisherman. Viola, or Cesario as she has become, goes to work for the Duke Orsino, who is in love with the Lady Olivia. Cesario, in his role as envoy of the Duke’s wishes, becomes the object of Olivia’s affections – much to Viola’s concern. When Sebastian seeks out Orsino, chaos ensues, with the two twins seemingly identical. All is, eventually, resolved – except, as I have mentioned, in this production, the resolution is not as easy as Shakespeare would offer it.
Queer relationships are crucial in this piece, with the dynamic between the Duke Orsino and the young Cesario (secretly a disguised Viola, played by Georgia Vyvyan in an excellently tailored suit), as well as the lady Olivia’s growing interest in a woman who she thinks to be a man. The most explicit relationship, however, is that between Sebastian and Antonio, the fisherman who rescued him after the shipwreck that first separated the two twins. When we first see them, Sebastian is leaving Antonio’s bed; the genuine affection between them makes Antonio’s later confrontation with Viola, who doesn’t recognise him, heartbreaking to watch as he thinks himself alienated by the man he loves.
Lucia Revel-Chion and Issy Snape’s set design is superb: it honestly felt like we’d been given access to an RSC production.
Much of the play is about compartmentalising, and the set reflects this with two mesh-covered structures that are lowered in to create individual rooms onstage, putting yet more distance between the audience and the actors. In the play’s most horrifying scene, when Anna Wright’s excellently pernickety Malvolia is taken up and, for want of a better word, tortured by Feste and the pretended figure of Sir Topaz the curate, she is led to an enclave built up behind the stage, half-warped by the rippling foils that the lighting plays off of. I genuinely struggled to watch as Malvolia stumbled onstage, shirt hanging off her shoulder, stockings torn and hair askew: we are forced to confront whether there is any real humour in the baiting of Malvolia, or in the actions of Maria, Sir Toby, Sir Andrew and Feste.
Indeed Annabelle Haworth’s Feste is the lynchpin of the production, flitting between the homes of Orsino and Olivia with ease and fluidity, stirring up chaos amongst the show’s more minor characters and keeping everything spinning in its tightly woven concentric circles.
I also really enjoyed Ferdinand Holley’s depiction of Sir Andrew Aguecheek, a character so often little more than a foil for Sir Toby Belch; Holley instead follows Sir Toby with a sort of puppyish eagerness, desperate for approval and often joining others in laughter even when it is clear he has not understood the joke.
There is a lot of longing in this production, fuelled by a sort of darkly glittering hedonism of drinking and drugs – I particularly liked the vodka bottles concealed in hanging baskets around the stage. Dmitry Bashtanov’s lighting and Aidan Tulloch’s clubnight-like musical composition helps in developing the darkness in the play, with scenes often feeling like they take place in a high-end nightclub. Although the music does seem initially jarring, once we settle into the methods of the production it begins to make a sort of horrible sense, trapping us into this darker reality of Twelfth Night than might have been expected.
In the show’s closing moments, I am reminded of a Young Vic production of Measure for Measure from a few years back, in the way that things are “settled”. The definition of a Shakespearean comedy is that through mishap or misunderstanding, things go wrong – but all is ultimately resolved with a marriage. The fact that this production makes me think of Measure for Measure, which is often viewed as diverging from the comedic genre, might give you an inkling of the feeling of discomfort that we, the audience, are left with at the end of this brilliantly dark production.
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