Written by William Shakespeare
November 2012 “Poor lady, she were better love a dream.
Disguise, I see, thou art a wickedness,
Wherein the pregnant enemy does much.”
Viola in Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare
When I came to England I had one goal (besides my studies) that I wanted to complete before I left and that was to see Twelfth Night performed. I have already completed that by attending a performance in Stratford-Upon-Avon, but I had been a bit underwhelmed. So when I saw that Twelfth Night was being performed in London, I jumped at the chance. When I saw that it was going to be performed in the traditional manner (an all male cast) and that the wonderful Stephen Fry would be portraying Malvolio, I almost screamed! I had never seen any play preformed in the traditional manner, and I had always been curious about whether the illusion would work.
Getting to the performance was a wet and long trip and the return journey even longer. Unfortunately, I happened to have booked my ticket for a day when my whole area started to flood, so all the trains were severely delayed. Luckily, due to my travel paranoia, I was still able to make the play even though my train was over an hour late arriving in London (enough time to dry out at least). Then my seat was in the middle of a school group, yes in the middle somehow. Luckily one of the girls saw my look of extreme displeasure and offered me the aisle seat (mostly so she could sit next to her friend). I was stuck in London for several hours after the play, including almost an hour spent pretending to be interested in the senile old man that smelled of pee (who also kissed my hand…). And it took over twice as long as it should have to get home, and one cancelled train (that I was on at the time). Even with all of this it was still worth it to go to the 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 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 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. Then the twins finally show up at the same time, and everyone realizes what has happened. 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), 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.
The whole performance had a wonderful feeling that I had somehow stepped back in time, even though I was within arm reach of some of the technology used in the play. The old time feel started with the stage, which had extra stalls added to the edge of the stage that made it feel a bit like The Globe Theatre. Then the actors used the stage as a dressing room before the play started. This was really neat to see the process of them getting into costumes, running some last practices, and interacting with each other as themselves instead of in character. It was extremely amusing to see the men who would be playing the women in the play getting ready. They would have their faces completely painted, their beautiful period dresses were flawless, but they were both rather bald on top, which was a rather jarring image (but extremely amusing). The musicians also practiced and played some really nice pieces, so we were well entertained while waiting.
There was also some other nice touches added to the play that made me think we had fallen back in time. After intermission the whole cast came out and sang a song, and it was rather impressive. Then when it was time for bows, instead of just standing there and bowing they did an interesting dance. It was much more fun cheering for all of them as they danced and seemed to have a great time.
As far as the actual play went, it was wonderful. It was a great reminder that some of the Bard’s plays have aged well and can still be hilarious to modern audiences. The words of the play helped, but the physical humor really took it to a whole new level of entertainment. There were also several scenes where the actors directly interacted with the audience (such as hiding more bottles of alcohol, asking for help, etc), and this was really engaging.
The minor characters were wonderful and provided many of the laughs. Sir Andrew Aguecheek was older than I am used to seeing, but he really was a believable knave. Feste and Toby were good, but did not really stand out, and seemed to blend into the background. However, they all came together when they spied on Malvolio; they all hid in an ivy covered gazebo thing, and changed where their heads and other limbs stuck out. The best of these characters was clearly Maria, Olivia’s serving lady. It is a part that usually just passes by without any notice, but the man playing her was brilliant. He did the least amount of change with his voice, but it worked, and he was able to portray the more uptight or silly moods she passes though. One of the most amusing things is that the actor must be a bit heavy, as with his corset on he had a bit of cleavage!
Stephen Fry was born to play Malvolio. It seemed to fit him like a glove. He was able to perform the stuffy side of Malvolio with wonderful believability. The best part was when he thought Olivia loved him. The monologues when he reads her letter were wonderful. There was a great moment when he was thinking of the word to say and was twiddling his fingers in his lap, and when the audience laughed at the implied word he raised a finger a berated the crowd without ever saying a word. The audience howled with laughter when he interacted with Olivia when he was cross-gartered, and then when the other characters pretended he was mad.
Orsino was a bit forgettable, but not poorly done. The poor actor though had rather unflattering trousers for his main costume. It just goes to show that puffy, knee length trousers are not for everyone, or every fabric! The best scenes with him were when there was some humor thrown into his scenes with Cesario. When Feste is singing to the two of them, the looks back and forth between them are amusing but also telling of the growing attraction between the two.
It was so strange to see a man playing Viola/Cesario. He had a long wig for the part even when he was Cesario, but there the costume changes made it easy to tell when he was Viola or Cesario. The part was not played with as much passion as I have seen before, but on key scenes he did a great job. One of the funniest was when Andrew challenged him to a fight. Cesario clung to the set and the audience, and was pulled and pushed across the stage. Then finally he was held up by a long staff against his back. When it came time for the drawing of swords the two were so far apart that their swords were not even within 2 feet of each other, which made it even better!
The highlight of the play though was Olivia. Going into the play, I did not understand why a lot of the promotions mentioned Mark Rylance over Stephen Fry, obviously now I understand (also having looked up who he is, I can see he won the Olivier Critics’ Award in 2002 for the same role!). Mark’s voice as Olivia helps the illusion, and in the dresses and painted face, he is the most believable as a woman. One of the most interesting aspects of his portrayal was the way Olivia moved. Mark would take tiny, quick steps, so that you never saw Olivia’s feet and instead it appeared that she floated along! It was something I had watched him practice before the play, but he moved like that all over the stage during the performance, sometimes doing quick turns to make sure his train would end in the correct place. Olivia in this play starts as really cold and distant, but then you see her as a rich woman who is prone to being dramatic, and does not know how to woo the young Cesario. One of the best scenes was Olivia breaking up the sword fight between Toby and Sebastian, which she did with screaming and a halberd! Then she threatened everyone on stage with it. She really went into the kiss with Sebastian then, leaving them both with hilariously smeared lipstick, before she faints dramatically. It was amazing. The look on Olivia’s face and the inflection when she says, “Most wonderful!” when she realizes there are two ‘Cesario’ is brilliant.
Some additional humor was able to be added at the end, as the twins really did look alike, in a way that is hard to believe in a mixed gender cast. Orsino and Olivia mix up which twin is which after they realize there are two of them. The best was when Orsino grabs Sebastian to propose, and Cesario was to the side pointing to herself and Sebastian was just looking bemused.
Overall this is probably the best version of Twelfth Night I have seen in person. It is a great play for people unfamiliar with Shakespeare’s work, as it is rather straight forward!
Final Verdict: Do whatever needs to be done to get tickets to see this (lie, steal, murder if need be!). It is an amazing presentation of the Bard’s work!