Sunday, September 09, 2007

Twelfth Night, RSC, 8/9/07

Somehow, I've managed to get through my school and uni days without ever studying Twelfth Night, and while I knew the general jist, it just happens to be one that I've inadvertantly avoided.

Knowing that it was a cross-dressing, mistaken identity play, I was concerned that it might be a bit of a trial to keep up, and director Neil Bartlett hardly made things easier by having women play the comedy roles of Sir Toby Belch, Sir Andrew Aguecheek and Fabian, and a man play Viola when she is pretending to be a man. But these decisions didn't lead to any confusion - in fact, in the case of the comedy characters, it was rather hard to understand why Bartlett had made the decision at all, as it made very little difference to the play. It didn't take anything from the play, but neither did it add anything, as it's already clear that issues of gender and cross-dressing are important, as the main storyline follows Viola's wooing of a Countess Olivia on her master's behalf - whom she loves - in male garb. As such, the decision to have Chris New play Viola made sense (and he portrayed her discomfort and awkwardness really well), but the extension of this to the comedy roles seemed a little arbitrary, funny as they were.

More interesting was the treatment of the fool, Feste. Here, he was not played simply for laughs, but became a narrator, commentator, musical accompianist (he played the piano which was permanently on stage), and actually a rather dark figure, who encourages Sir Toby, Sir Andrew and Maria as they play mind-games with Olivia's steward, Malvolio. He revels in Malvolio's madness as he is (wrongly) persuaded that Olivia loves him, and as a result, we feel Malvolio's abuse - as it is in fact called in the final scene - all the more keenly. It becomes much more than a ridiculous comic sub-plot.

Malvolio - you might remember - is played by John Lithgow, and he is brilliant. Well, he's pretty much playing the classic John Lithgow part -superior, deluded, generally disliked - but you can't say that's not incredibly funny. It's the stand-out performance of the night, along with Chris New and James Clyde (Feste), in a production otherwise lacking striking performances; the Duke and Olivia particularly never seemed to get out of second gear.

This production is genuinely funny, and the great performances really were great - but there are too many random choices and underwhelming performances to make it a classic.

2 comments:

Stu-N said...

I did Twelfth Night for O level, back in the dim and distant past (which you can tell by the words 'O level') and it's been one of my favourites ever since.

Some interesting things about TN:

Feste is actually the main character. Shakespeare wrote it especially for Robert Armin, who played the Fools in his plays — he was a professional comic, as famous to his audience as any top stand-up would be now. It was a comissioned play for lawyers, probably treated as a bit of fun - the sort of thing that a top bank would do. So Armin got something a bit unusual. It's the only time in a Shakespeare play that you see the Fool offstage, and he's a scary bloke - observes everything, all the time, sees through all the disguises and deceptions as if they weren't there, can say anything he likes (what's the harm? He's just the Fool, it's all a joke)... and all the intelligent characters are scared of him. Armin was a playwright himself. David Mitchell would be a close parallel.
Toby Belch isn't a harmless comedy character, he's the villain of the piece. The main story isn't Olivia/Orsino at all - that's all really inconsequential, though the poetry's nice. The Toby subplot has much higher stakes - it involves a desperate drunken man trying to fleece people out of their money, then driving an innocent man insane - and for no reason other than he likes his fun and resents having it taken away from him. And he's a snob. Feste, of course, takes shameless advantage of this to get one over on the main threat to his livelihood. It's an inversion of Shakespeare's usual plots, where the noble characters get the high-stakes, life-or-death stuff and the servants/peasants are just funny. But Twelfth Night is the day when the order gets subverted, isn't it?

It can actually be a desperately dark play. How happy do you reckon the marriages at the end would be?

Neil Bartlett is an idiot. There's no point in having Toby/Andrew played by women. The treatment of sexuality in the play is interesting, though — I've seen the Sea Captain (who befriends Sebastian) played as a screaming queen and Orsino as a complete closet case.

God, I haven't thought about TN for ages...

AnnaWaits said...

Thanks for that, Stu - really interesting! Unfortunately, it means that whereas I thought that they highlighted the viciousness of the 'comedy' characters, and that that was a decision particular to this production, that's actually just the standard reading of the text... hum.