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Twelfth Night, or What You Will (2012/13)

Directed by Damien Ryan

Written by William Shakespeare

December 7, 2012 to January 20, 2013

A pair of lost twins wash ashore in a strange land and distraught with the loss of each other, immediately shed their identities, no longer of any value to them. It is a reflex action, all too logical - to lose one’s twin is to lose oneself.

What did twins mean to Shakespeare? One certainty is that it was his personal definition of family, being the father of twins, “both born in an hour”, as Sebastian says in this play. As he goes on to say, “would we had so ended”, but unfortunately for young Judith Shakespeare, her brother Hamnet died in August 1596, at the heartbreaking age of 11, the dawning of youth. It is impossible to believe that the stunning reconciliation of Viola and Sebastian at the close of Twelfth Night was not a deeply personal matter to William Shakespeare, as with the reunited twins in The Comedy of Errors. And, of course, mirror images offer intoxicating theatrical possibilities.

The notion of self-reflection goes right to the core of Twelfth Night’s meaning. The plot follows a labyrinth of unrequited loves, the agony of which spreads like a desperate plague through almost every relationship in the story, both hetero and homosexual. But the ultimate vision of unreciprocated desire is narcissism – “self-love” – and it is here that we begin to recognize the sheer breadth of Shakespeare’s intention in the play.

Narcissus, the beautiful boy of ancient myth, left a trail of unrequited loves in his wake, including the young nymph Echo, who pined away for him to the point of complete physical disintegration until she became only a voice that answers us back in lonely canyons across the world. The boy of course suffered the fate of his own cruelty upon seeing his reflection in the water, transfixed and tormented to the act of suicide by his inability to win the love of the beautiful face staring back at him. The moral being the dangers of self-obsession and vanity.

It is here that Shakespeare finds Twelfth Night’s imagery and he twists the poetry of this myth into extraordinary forms, especially through Feste’s exquisitely mocking songs, soaring ballads of unrequited pain for which our brilliant Christopher Harley has developed such a beautiful score for Tyran in the role. Orsino, Malvolio and Olivia are visions of poisonous self-love and are punished to the point of madness for their vanity and lack of self-knowledge. Meanwhile the lost twins themselves are a dual image of the notion of unrequited self-love – “I my brother know yet living in my glass…for him I imitate”, says Viola, whose method of mourning is to become the physical image of her ‘dead’ brother. But Shakespeare twines the myth around these characters even more cunningly through his portrait of this heroine, Viola, an echo of Echo herself.

Echo was famed for the music of her voice and her extraordinary eloquence as a storyteller, called a “babbling gossip” by Ovid in his Metamorphoses. The jealous goddess, Hera, punished her by removing her capacity to speak for herself, condemning her to forever repeat the words of others. Shakespeare’s Viola is quite literally, as her name suggests, a musical instrument. She is among the most eloquent characters Shakespeare ever wrote, she “can sing and speak in many kinds of music”, and he consciously gives her a vernacular that leaves her fellow characters reeling –

Orsino: How does thou like this tune?

Viola: It gives a very echo to the seat where love is throned.

Orsino: Thou dost speak masterly!

Even here Shakespeare can’t help himself, riffing on the very word ‘echo, one of many times in the play. Viola, desperately in love with Orsino, who is desperately in love with the image of himself in love, is condemned to become his “messenger”, his Echo, repeating only his words rather than finding her own voice. When, dressed as the boy Caesario, Viola dares once to use her own eloquence, she leaves Olivia in awe and in love with her/him – through her intoxicating ‘music’. And it here that Shakespeare’s hall of vain mirrors begins to resemble a Coney Island series of warped reflections – Orsino and Olivia both falling for the same man/maid, who reflects back to them their own imaginations of gender and sensuality.

As Anthony and Abigail found through their passionate work on these characters, it should not seem strange that Orsino finally and suddenly declares a shift in his love at the plays miraculous ending. His love for Viola has grown from within despite having no access to the external vision of who “she” actually is.. Addicted to staring at his own reflection in the water, he has now grown to know and love someone without being able to “see” them at all, buried beneath a disguise.

Viola: “Time, you must untangle this, not I

Tis too hard a knot for me to untie”

Olivia, the great beauty of the story, is at the centre of the plays vision of unrequited desire. Her grief and the decision to hide her beauty from the world for a period of 7 years, or until that very beauty has faded, creates another reflected double – two young women who mask their identity in the grief of a lost brother. It is here that Megan Drury, playing Olivia, feels a remarkable empathy develops between the two women, who will eventually become sisters, thereby filling that aching sibling absence. The reflexivity is everywhere.

Malvolio, “sick” with “self-love”, is the plays final word on narcissism. One of Shakespeare’s greatest creations, with a name literally meaning ‘ill-will’ toward others, Malvolio is loved and despised by audiences in equally complex measure, and as Mark Lee said in rehearsals, there is more than a little Malvolio in all of us. We found in him the embodiment of a loneliness that has infected itself into a Puritanism and killjoy philosophy that had real traction in Shakespeare’s age. His final vow of revenge came true for Shakespeare’s artistic contemporaries when the apparently debauched and iniquitous theatre industry was entirely shut down by the Puritan rebellion of Cromwell in the 1640s.

Charles Lamb on Malvolio;

“he is pitiable (in thinking Olivia loves him) but you feel an

hour of such a mistake was worth an age with eyes open.

Who would not like to live but for a day in the conceit of

such a lady’s love as Olivia’s? The Duke would have given

his principality but for a quarter of a minute, sleeping

or waking, to have been so deluded…”

An opposing philosophy comes from Sir Toby Belch who, with some of Olivia’s “trappings”, Maria, Feste and Fabian (Fabienne in our production), dominates the plays other plot. Sir Toby enshrines some of the plays essential meanings. Should we live in the past, in our griefs and losses, in our mistakes and regrets? Or should we, like Falstaff, make life a holiday, let the world slip, join the great dance and live for “present laughter”? After all, “youth’s a stuff will not endure”. He can’t run forever from life’s responsibilities but he has a spectacular summer crack at it. His, Maria’s and Fabienne’s ‘prank’ on Malvolio is a holiday revel, a bit of fun in the sun, which like most ill-conceived human actions has human consequences, and provides the play with its famous balance of hilarity and melancholy.

Known both as Shakespeare’s most moody comedy, Twelfth Night is a ‘saturnalia’ – a wild, festive ritual embodied in dramatic form. To the sadness of many Elizabethan families, of which the Shakespeare’s were almost certainly one, many of the ancient Catholic ‘holy-days’ and feast days had been banned from the calendar under Elizabeth 1, leaving a gaping wound in the sense of community and the opportunities for village life. The ‘twelfth night’ ritual itself (on January 6, the 12th day of Christmas) in which a “Lord of Misrule” was chosen at random, often through the discovery of a bean in the celebratory fruitcake, was banned in Shakespeare’s adulthood. This ritual, as the play captures with incredible clarity, was about overturning the natural status relationships that control life. The Lord of Misrule was a low-born person who became King for a Day, enslaving his superiors in a delightful game of irreverence, abuse, fleering and flouting at authority that had a strong political edge. Sir Toby takes on this role and we get a chaotic festive romp where Malvolio, Maria, Caesario, Olivia and Orsino find themselves wildly crossing status divides in a ‘whirlygig’ of sexual obsession. Toby himself, a knight of the realm, ends up marrying the maidservant – life catches up with him. As Feste’s final song says, “When that I was a little tiny boy, a foolish thing was but a toy”…in other words, when kids play pranks and foolish games they remain child’s-play, when adults do so, the consequences are all too real. “But when I came to man’s estate…’gainst knaves and thieves men shut their gates…for the rain it raineth everyday…”

Shakespeare does not simply write a play about a holiday revel, he writes a play that is such a revel, giving his audience, as only theatre can, the ‘experience’ of a holiday they are no longer permitted to have.

Our production, set right on the waters edge, between heat and storms, idyll and ice-cream, has sought to capture this spirit of a summer holiday by the sea – the ocean, the salt waves and the wind and weather providing the imaginative buoyancy in which Shakespeare soaks his poetry throughout the play. As any family knows, holidays that last too long tend to turn nasty and we never entirely escape our demons and envies when we leave home, indeed, we tend to pack them with us.

Our starting point was reflection - two great estates, Orsino’s and Olivia’s, that stare at each other directly across a harbour or stretch of water, inescapably in each other’s sights day and night. Our next image was that of a wrecked asylum vessel foundering on the shore of this unhappy paradise, an idyllic place that is strangely unwelcoming and dangerous, (which has particular relevance to another country I can think of, whose name nicely mirrors Illyria!) The world Shakespeare has created seems on permanent holiday, no-one has responsibilities, all the parents are dead and there is apparently no impediment to love, sex and happiness for these people, yet their little land, girt by sea, is infected with self-love, bitter revenges and unrequited desire gone mad. It takes the arrival of two lost twins to break the glass that seems to have trapped this place into adoration of its own self-image and bring change, recognition and progress to its people, waking Illyria after tempest and chaos to a new dawn. But as life tells us, a community can never include everyone, Illyria may gain two happy new residents but it loses many others.

Twelfth Night, for us, is about finding the freedom that comes in loving others more than oneself. It explores the full spectrum of homo and hetero desire, set in a country called Illyria, which in Shakespeare’s time, and for over a thousand years, had fully sanctioned religious orthodox ceremonies for same-sex marriage. Now wouldn’t that be an almost magical place to live? Illyria sounds and feels like Elysium, which means “ideal space” and delirium, “great excitement”. A place where refugees can find their families again and happiness can only be found in freedom, or “what you will…”

Director's Note

(No director's note available for this production)

Production Reviews

Production Gallery

Photography by Takaya Honda

  • Abigail Austin | Viola

  • Anthony Gooley | Orsino

  • Bernadette Ryan | Maria

  • Christopher Stalley | Sea Captain

  • Christopher Tomkinson | Antonio

  • Eloise Winestock | Ensemble

  • Francesca Savige | Ensemble

  • Gabriel Fancourt | Sebastian

  • George Banders | Ensemble

  • James Lugton | Sir Toby Belch

  • Keith Agius | Sir Topaz

  • Mark Lee | Malvolio

  • Megan Drury | Olivia

  • Michael Pigott | Sir Andrew Aguecheek

  • Naomi Livingston | Ensemble

  • Sam Haft | Ensemble

  • Scott Sheridan | Ensemble

  • Tyran Parke | Feste

  • Anna Gardiner | Costume Designer

  • Christopher Harley | Music Composition

  • Damien Ryan | Director

  • David Stalley | Sound Design / Videography

  • Jeremy Page | Technical Manager/Operator

  • Maryellen George | Assistant Stage Manager

  • Nick Catran | Set Construction

  • Oliver Burton | Publicity and Venue Liaison

  • Ruth Horsfall | Stage Manager

  • Scott Witt | Fight Director / Movement

  • Toby Knyvett | Lighting Designe

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