Written by William Shakespeare
As seen in Stratford-Upon-Avon, England
“O time, thou must untangle this, not I.
It is too hard a knot for me t’untie.”
Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare
Since I first saw a movie version of Twelfth Night, or What you Will when I was 13, I have loved the story of Twelfth Night. It is the play I have read the most times, and seen the most versions of (mostly as movies or recordings of performances). I even learned a monologue from the play for a performance competition (which I failed abysmally). So I was extremely excited to see a version of it by the RSC in Stratford-Upon-Avon, and it was, in fact, the first play I watched there. I was able to get cheap tickets to see the understudy performance, so I knew it might not be the best, but I did not care. And while I enjoyed my experience with it, I can admit I have several issues with this specific performance.
Twelfth Night is one of Shakespeare’s comedies, which means there are several plots happening at the same time, all to be resolved in the finale. The main story revolves around Viola, a young girl who has been shipwrecked, and who believes her twin brother (Sebastian) died in the shipwreck. To survive, she dresses as a man and takes the name Cesario. She finds work for the Duke Orsino, and quickly gains his favor, and is entrusted with the job of trying to woo the Lady Olivia for the Duke. Olivia has also recently lost a brother, and says she will not court for at least 7 years. But Cesario is young, brash, and has a quick wit, all of which helps Cesario gain an audience with the Olivia. Olivia starts to fall for the young Cesario, but stays resolute that she is not interested in the Duke. While carrying the messages of love to Olivia, Viola finds herself falling for the Duke, thus creating a love triangle. While all of this is happening, Viola’s brother is actually alive and ends up traveling to the town Viola is living in. Neither is aware of the other, and people begin to mistake them for each other. Eventually, Sebastian marries Olivia, beats her kinsman, and losses track of his only friend. Viola meanwhile is saved by Sebastian’s friend in a sword fight, is accused of marrying a woman and betraying the Duke. But then the twins finally show up at the same time, and everyone realizes what has happened. Then Olivia realizes she has married Sebastian, and the Duke realizes that all the times Cesario said he liked someone like the Duke, it was really Viola saying she liked the Duke. So a double wedding is planned and a celebration.
There is a secondary plot running throughout the play as well. It focuses on Olivia’s kinsman, Sir Toby Belch, and his companions enacting revenge upon the stuffy, pompous, and egotistical butler, Malvolio. The main players in this part are Toby, Sir Andrew Aguecheek (a potential suitor of Olivia’s), Maria (the lady in waiting who is in love with Toby), and Feste (the jester that Olivia enjoys). They write a fake love letter to Malvolio in what appears to be Olivia’s handwriting. Malvolio dreams of marrying her and becoming higher than his status, and falls for it. In the letter is advice on what would please Olivia, but really it is just things that will make him look foolish. Then, with careful manipulating they get Malvolio locked up as a lunatic. It is not until the celebration that Malvolio is freed, and he accuses Olivia, but she figures out it was Maria’s handwriting. Feste and another servant are the ones who confess their part, and use Malvolio’s own words to justify it. In the end, the Orsino attempts to placate Malvolio, but Malvolio swears revenge on everyone and leaves.
As I have mentioned this is one of my favorite plays, and the one I have read the most times. One aspect I love is that there is such ambiguity in the text that the directors can change the ending dramatically. I have seen many versions where everyone is happy at the end (except Malvolio). But my favorite version showed that while it looks nice on paper, no one ended up with who they thought they had, and there was an almost sad ending. This is one of the few plays that has so much room for a director to choose what to do.
Overall, I enjoyed the play, but I was not blown away. I think part of that was some of the staging and some of the casting. But there was a scene that was the funniest and most outrageous I have ever seen in a play; the scene where Malvolio appears smiling and in yellow cross-gartered socks was brilliant. The actor, who was one of the understudies, did an amazing job. His costume was his normal suit top, with a black thong, and thigh high socks held up by a garter belt. His butt was bare and throughout the scene the staging was such that everyone got a fair look. But the actor was able to pull it off in character and I can honestly say the audience was dying as he had to climb a staircase to leave the stage. It was so good that one of the actors actually came into the theatre to watch with the audience (there were many empty seats).
The other highlight of the show was the pool in the corner. There was an actual swimming pool in the edge of the stage, and the floor overhung it a little, appearing like the wreckage of a ship. Viola and several other characters used that as their initial entrance. There was also a scene where one of the characters is thrown into the pool, and the audience had a bit of a splash zone. It was a brilliant piece of the set, but it did cause some strange staging. We saw Viola enter from the pool, and then lie on the ground wet, while another scene happened behind her. I felt distracted watching her there, because all I could think was ‘she must be getting really cold’. This is not the first time I have seen a pool as part of the stage, but this was the coolest set up. I do think they could have used it a bit more in the play though.
I think for me one of the most disappointing aspects was the casting. I know they were supposed to be the understudies, but there was something missing from most of the characters. I found Cesario quiet and almost mousy, which is not how I have pictured him. When Viola is Cesario she should display a quick wit, and an almost caviler attitude towards some of the social standards of the time, yet when Cesario tells Olivia what he would do if it were he who loved her, it was just casually mention. The other character that really disappointed me was Festewho, after Cesario, is usually my favorite. It felt like they had attempted to copy Sir Ben Kingsley’s version of Feste (from the 1996 movie), but missed horribly. The actor had an accent that made it hard to understand the Shakespearean lines. But more than that, he had only one expression during most of the play, versus the actors in other versions who usually display a wide range of expressions in that part. I was also underwhelmed at the ‘songs’ he sang in this version, if that is what they could be called.
One small thing that bothered me was the ending of this play. Usually there is a celebration and/or wedding. This one had the two main couples making out for a while, then all four climbing into a bed together. To me this just felt a bit wrong, and paired with a very poor rendition of Feste’s song, it was just creepy and awkward.
I have to say I will always go to any staging of this play. But I am learning what I like to see with this play and what I do not. While I will give the understudies another chance, I realize that there may be a reason to pay a little more to see the actual leads. Although honestly, I cannot imagine the yellow stocking scene being any better!
Final Verdict: Go and see Twelfth Night if it is playing, but maybe skip this version, or just go for the best Malvolio scene ever!