I am all the daughters of my father’s house. And all the brothers too.
For a long time, Twelfth Night was my favourite of Shakespeare’s plays.
Exposed to its lunacy when I was old enough to understand it, but still young enough to revel in its joyous madness, I was captivated. With years, I have come to understand the complications of Twelfth Night, and have only come to love it more. However, I had never seen a production of Twelfth Night that really caught my imagination as reading it did, when I was 13. Some have come close, like a particularly good film version with Ben Kingsley and Helena Bonham-Carter. But, still, I found myself becoming disenchanted with a play I had coveted for so long, as I was yet to fall in love with a production.
I must say: the RSC’s Twelfth Night is what I have been waiting for all this time, without ever really knowing it.
Christopher Luscombe is the king of sumptuous, enthralling settings. I was enchanted by his turn-of-the-century Love’s Labours Lost back in 2014 and invigorated by his witty, pretty Nell Gwynn, and now he tackles Twelfth Night in the Victorian era. A time of rigid social expectations and hierarchy: perfect for a play of forbidden sexuality and status battles. Olivia and her fool, Feste, are now framed as Victoria and her Abdul, Feste being her Munshi. But, as Abdul was, Feste is embittered by his treatment, whether as a performing monkey, or a substandard servant. The original excuse for the witty fool’s cruelty towards Malvolio is his cutting comments early in the play but, here, we see that this is not some pretty grudge, but a bone-deep anger. Beruce Khan’s performance of “Hey Robin”, finishing with guttural shouts rather than the sing-song expected, is particularly crushing. Antonio – formerly pirate – is now a homosexual, sought under Victorian law much like a pirate would have been. The Victorian setting is validated, entertaining, luscious, and beautifully put together by Simon Higlett.
I purposefully described the play as exploring ‘forbidden sexuality’ rather than ‘confused sexuality’, which is so often said to be the case for Twelfth Night. Perhaps the golden gem in Luscombe’s telling of this comedy is the fact that, unlike so many versions, the characters are not merely confused. To say they were confused would be to undermine. The National Theatre’s recent Twelfth Night was a sexual mish-mash of confused people falling in love in wrong ways and then laughing at their silly mistakes (save Phoebe Fox’s Olivia, who was shown to be a victim, however briefly). But, here, there is no doubt that characters are gay.
Olivia, though she believes she has fallen in love with a man, realises very quickly – when the play slows to its uneasy finish – that she has fallen in love with a woman. Lesbianism would not have seemed an option for Olivia, living in a sheltered, upper-class Victorian society. Kara Tointon is quite excellent as Olivia, who seems to have fallen in love for the first time, and is blissfully excited at the force of it.
The greatest revelation of this production, for me, was Orsino. Perfectly pitched by Nicholas Bishop, he is first seen under a golden bower, showered in heady light, painting a partially-nude young man. He practically skips from servant to servant in a state of haze, though these servants are now clearly young lovers. His first speech (“If music be the food of love…”), musing on his unrequited love for Olivia, is given new life when he chooses to stroke the hair of this man, gently, paper-light. Later, we see him dressed in braces, no shirt, dressing gown (huge kudos to the costume designer for creating such a perfect Orsino outfit), smoking, opiate-infused, and having “Come Away Death” sung to him by Viola (not Feste, as originally). He is in a heady trance as he listens to the intoxicating rise and fall of the melody. Then, he does not kiss Cesario/Viola through some momentary weakness or loss of sense. No. He chooses to kiss him/her. Orsino ‘loves’ Olivia because she is untouchable, and therefore safe. He falls in love with a man.
When accidentally courting Sebastian in the final scene, the audience laughed, understandably, but there was something bitter in it. When he gives a false-laugh, realising his mistake, Bishop plays a perfect line between humour and melancholy.
The final moment (before the obligatory song and dance) is quietly devastating.
But, of course, as is the way with a Shakespearean comedy, it is not all drama and devastation. In fact, the majority of it is laugh-out-loud funny, and mirthful with songs that you will be humming when you leave the theatre. Adrian Edmondson is delightfully silly as the yellow stocking-clad Malvolio. Characters posing as ridiculous statues as they hide from Malvolio is another delight. As is the various bits and bobs that the servants pick up to fight the ‘possessed’ manservant: rolling pin, rake, the list goes on.
Twelfth Night is a play of merry midsummer madness, indeed. It’s absurdities and foibles and songs and jokes are played to audience-pleasing gusto. But the flaws in its ending are laid out to be mourned over. In Shakespeare’s England, Twelfth Night – or the 5th of January – was the time of greatest celebration, more so than Christmas.
The play mirrors this. Drunkenness, merriment, riot; but then the bitter silence that comes after the party.