Twelfth Night

Wow, what a week. I can’t quite believe how  much I packed into it – two Shakespeare plays in the West End, the first teaching block of my course in Stratford and a quick break in Wiltshire with my DH. And to think I believed I’d have the time to write. Anyway, here to kick off, a review of "Twelfth Night" , in which Derek Jacobi stole the show as Malvolio

Donmar Warehouse at the Wyndham’s Theatre, London
11 February 2009

Twelfth Night does not come across as a “problem play” stuffed with the kind of contentious issues that directors like to get their teeth into. I doubt whether we’re meant to take any particular message from it away with us, though it displays a subtlety of characterisation that sets it apart from the early comedies. It’s conceived primarily as entertainment, and this production reflects that. Well, mostly.

Shakespeare clearly relished writing the iconic humorous characters – Sir Andrew Aguecheek, Sir Toby Belch, Feste the Clown and Maria the serving woman. All these are brilliantly done, delivering their lines with spot-on comic timing, and any one of them deserves credit but they are, nevertheless, eclipsed by Derek Jacobi’s wonderful Malvolio. This is a star turn to savour – the great man takes us on a genuine emotional journey as we laugh at him, then begin to squirm in our seats at his distress and bewilderment as the practical joke spirals out of control. The stiff Puritan killjoy is given a touching emotional life. Maria is a resourceful and knowing axis of the subplot, her sharp eyes and tongue missing nothing. Sir Toby and Sir Andrew remain likeable whilst clearly being the houseguests from hell, though I’d draw the line at seeing their moral universe as an attractive alternative to the main one.

And what of the women? Viola (Victoria Hamilton) is sparky yet vulnerable, adrift but resourceful in a bewildering world. We never forget her grief, either for her lost brother or for her unrequited love; whilst Orsino wallows melodramatically in a passion shaped as much by thwarted male pride as genuine feeling, Viola puts a brave face on things and faces all her challenges head-on. It’s impossible not to like her.

Olivia (Indira Varma) has elegance and presence, but is less successful. Her transformation from grieving recluse to lovesick teenager is too sudden to be convincing, though the visual cues (from Widow of Windsor to Wallis Simpson on the Riviera) are so easy on the eye that it’s tempting just to sit back and enjoy the show. Any depth to her character remains unexplored.

Least convincing are the noblemen, perhaps because they are somewhat underwritten, in Sebastian’s case at least. He comes over as a shallow, spoilt brat incapable of proactive behaviour, dependant on his hapless lover Antonio for his very survival. So unequal is the emotional balance of this relationship that it has been seized on by commentators claiming a queer agenda as a classic example of the marginalization of a gay man in a straight world. Personally I see it as less iconic than that – it’s simply a sad story of a decent bloke falling for a worthless one, and painful to watch, introducing a discordant note into the finale’s resolution.

Here I felt the production faltered a little, as if waking up belatedly to the need to have a message. The one it comes up with is nothing remarkable, simply that most of us (particularly Orsino) have bisexual tendencies when pushed, and that romantic infatuation makes us behave stupidly and badly. Nobody demonstrates this more clearly than Mark Bonnar’s utterly unpleasant Orsino, who even pulls a knife on Caesario/Viola when (s)he appears to frustrate his obsession with Olivia. After this, it’s impossible to believe that their subsequent marriage would be a happy one unless his wife regularly indulged him in his cross-dressing kink. Even then, he’d consider himself perfectly entitled to pursue Sebastian, but he’d be very unlikely to allow a similar latitude to Viola should she choose to act on her feelings towards Olivia once legally “Orsino’s mistress and his fancy’s queen”. 

To summarise, it’s worth going just to see Jacobi, but that does an injustice to an accessible and enjoyable production, ideal if you like your Shakespeare straightforward and entertaining, or you’re introducing someone else to the Bard. And Zubin Varma is an attractive Feste; his songs are an additional delight.


3 thoughts on “Twelfth Night

  1. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a production of Twelfth Night. I know it primarily from reading Lamb’s Tales as a child. I should look for a filmed version in the library.
    I think it’s so exciting that you can see such good productions of the plays so close to where you live! My city has a Shakespeare company, but the actors are always regional talent, never anyone with a national reputation.

  2. Dunno how I missed this. You must have posted it when my internet wasn’t among the living.
    I’d disagree that it’s not a ‘problem play’ and that it has no message. In fact, I’d argue strongly to the opposite. I think that the message is basically that people – particularly noble people – are pompous and self-absorbed, as obviously epitomised by Malvolio, but also applicable to Orsino and Olivia. They’re all shown at differing points to be fools in the play, and that wasn’t played strongly enough in my opinion. And I think that as a result it’s very poignant, deeper than any of his other comedies to the point where I’d argue that it almost is a problem play. It has a happy ending, sure, but all the delusions make the happiness ring hollow. No one’s love is a reflection of their lover, it’s a reflection on themselves. It’s actually sort of depressing.
    I thought that the main problem with this production was the complete lack of change of mood. The Malvolio thing, in my opinion, is obviously supposed to be a joke too far, one which rapidly becomes cruel. I think that Malvolio’s humiliation had to be uncomfortable. I felt that it ought to shame everyone, including the audience. As you said, Jacobi was mind-blowing, but I wasn’t feeling it from the rest of the cast at that point.
    Jolly good review, though. Interesting to see how different our reactions were to it. Although yes, it was essentially vanilla Shakespeare. Shame.
    (Ooh, and for a non-vanilla Shakespeare fix, have you ever seen anything by the all-male Propeller company? They’re edgy, but they don’t bollocks things up the way that Macbeth performance you saw clearly did.)

  3. I confess it isn’t a play I’ve studied in great detail. In a sense, you could argue that Shakespeare never wrote a straightforward play; all his work explores complexity in relationships and is open to multiple readings. I think the point I was trying to make was that there doesn’t seem to be a particular point one can seize on for debate, in the sense that, say, we might argue about the portrayal of Jews in MoV, or postcolonial readings of “The Tempest.”
    Your point about people’s loves being a reflection of themselves is very well argued. I don’t think that’s the only example in the canon. We never find out how Hero feels about marrying Claudio by the end of “Much Ado”, or even whether Isabella accepts the Duke’s proposal in “Measure for Measure.” The comedies mostly impose a sticking-plaster solution to conflicts which doesn’t stand up to close examination.
    I don’t quite agree about the cast not reacting to Malvolio’s distress. I think Maria definitely does, at least she did on the night I saw the play. What worries me far more is the terrible way Orsino behaves, and also that Antonio’s very real love for Sebastian isn’t resolved (though admittedly that’s difficult to adress without a rewrite).
    No, I haven’t seen Propeller, though I’ve heard of them. I’m catching up on the theatrical scene after almost 20 years away. I would love to get down to the Old Vic this summer for the Sam Mendes production of “Winter’s Tale”.

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