Rather neatly, I’ve so far seen 12 different productions of the play; it isn’t just because it’s my favourite, it’s an incredibly popular play to stage – the fact that half of the productions I saw were in 2017 should confirm that. I don’t think I’ve seen a particularly bad one ever, just one slightly lacklustre version that was still mostly good. Basically, as long as you don’t suck all the comedy out of it and try to turn it into some sort of drama, you can’t really go wrong! As far as my memory serves, Twelfth Night was the very first Shakespeare play I ever saw, when a touring company brought a very small cast to Somerset (including Kyla Goodey, who I’ve more recently seen in Kneehigh productions), and we studied it for Year 9 SATs – I remember playing Olivia in one of the scenes we attempted to perform in class, randomly. It also happened to be the first time I saw a certain Rob Myles onstage, as a yellow y-fronted Malvolio for Merely Theatre! Scena Mundi’s remains a favourite, and I loved the Public Theater musical version at the Young Vic, but Emma Rice’s production at the Globe took over my life for a few glorious weeks in summer 2017 so that would have to go down as my favourite.
The Two Gentlemen of Verona alumna (and director, playwright & theatremaker) Beth Burns was on hand for this week’s introduction. She explained that themes of the play include separation, nature’s inconstancy, excessive drinking, trauma, plague & mourning – almost enough to make you wonder how it ended up as such an hilarious comedy! “How do you cope with the loss of your hopes?” This is a common feeling amongst most of the characters at the beginning of the play; Orsino’s hopes of marrying Olivia are getting quashed at every attempt, Viola’s journey with Sebastian is brought to a violent end by the shipwreck, and Sir Andrew is about to take the hint from Olivia also. Latterly, of course, Malvolio’s hopes of betterment are dashed in the most public & humiliating way imaginable – and just “whose side are we on” at that point? Feste, Olivia’s clown, acts as a “link to the past” as he had previously been favoured by her late father – and he also is responsible for the musicality of the play, with various songs popping up throughout. Ultimately, Burns sees Twelfth Night as Shakespeare’s “love letter to us all” and one of his “most enjoyable” works.
Orsino has just been rebuffed by Olivia once again, the loss of her father & brother in fairly quick succession prompting her into a seven-year period of mourning. While he pines away, Viola washes up on shore following a shipwreck in which she presumes her brother Sebastian has perished; to protect herself & find gainful employment she disguises herself as a youth named Cesario (based on her brother), soon earning a place in Orsino’s household. When sent to woo Olivia on her master’s behalf, however, Viola catches Olivia’s eye – and as she has fallen for her master Orsino, a love triangle is born! To complicate matters further, Olivia’s uncle Sir Toby has invited Sir Andrew Aguecheek to milk him of his fortune under the pretence that he is in with a shot of marrying Olivia. Their drunken behaviour irks steward Malvolio, and causes them to set a trap for him (masterminded by Maria, Olivia’s maid), provoking some rather out-of-character behaviour…
Whilst the play does open with the famous line “If music be the food of love, play on”, there has been something of a trend in recent productions of including a prologue of sorts to show the shipwreck – this part isn’t in the play, Shakespeare simply introduces Viola when she’s washed ashore on Illyria. I did wonder if The Show Must Go Online would follow in this trend – given that they are developing their use of the technology week in, week out – however, they chose to stick with the play as is; absolutely fair enough to do so, and actually quite refreshing from my perspective. What they did utilise the technology for (amongst other things) was a set of pre-filmed ‘Malvolio springs into action’ clips – I knew the style was familiar, but couldn’t place it until someone on the chat mentioned Edgar Wright. Yes! It fits perfectly with Malvolio’s need to swiftly & efficiently respond to Olivia’s requests, as well as meet his own high standards.
One thing that I really loved about this version of the play was that they decided to explore Sebastian’s relationship with Antonio a bit more, the audience meeting Sebastian as he’s getting up to dress, leaving Antonio in bed. This idea has been explored before (notably in a production by the RSC in 2002), but the sensitivity with which this was handled here is incredible; to show Sebastian in a sexual relationship with a man and then for him to throw Antonio over upon meeting Olivia could leave things too up in the air – and would certainly give the impression that Sebastian is trying to run away from his sexuality (whether he’s gay, bi, or anything else), which is the kind of negative portrayal that should be avoided. Sebastian acknowledging the relationship and drawing a line under it is no less painful for Antonio, but it doesn’t suggest that this is something to be ashamed of. It also casts Antonio’s pursuit in a new light, and makes “Will you deny me now?” cut even deeper when he encounters Viola/Cesario but thinks it must be Sebastian.
As well as seeing how Shakespeare possibly took previous characters and worked on them in subsequent plays, by seeing them performed in order you can see his self-reference more clearly; one that springs to mind is Polonius (in Hamlet) talking about his performance as Julius Caesar when acting at university, and in Twelfth Night Feste talks of coins earned as “Cressida to this Troilus” – guess which play is next..? It’s like “coming up next time in Shakespeare” in this case, or “previously on Shakespeare” in the Polonius example – definitely not something that would hold as much significance if you were watching or reading these in isolation or a different order.
There may have been unexpected deep moments extracted from the text for this production, but it’s still the silly & gloriously funny Twelfth Night that we all know. Casting Jeffrey Weissman as Sir Toby was a masterstroke, as he managed a costume change between nearly every scene, his hair got higher & crazier each time we saw him, and boy can he do drunk acting! He combined brilliantly with Lewis Allcock as Sir Andrew to make a rowdy double act, and Carys McQueen brought a mischievous & musical twinkle to the party as Feste. Fiona Tong clearly revelled in the chance to put her spin on Malvolio, particularly once he’s let loose with his yellow stockings… Lydia Bakelmun & Clive Keene were perfectly cast as the separated twins Viola & Sebastian, mastering the extremes of melancholy & farce that test them throughout the play.
Long-time Mind the Blog readers will know just how much of a favourite Twelfth Night is, and to get a brand new version of it when I wouldn’t have expected one at the beginning of the pandemic meant it was quite an emotional experience as well as a joyous one. Definitely a show I could watch on repeat!
Next week: Troilus & Cressida
Twelfth Night was broadcast on 19 August 2020. The Show Must Go Online runs every Wednesday at 7pm and is also available to watch afterwards. Become a Patron at The Show Must Go Online’s Patreon page. The Show Must Go Online merchandise is available from Redbubble.