Tuesday, 1 February 2011

TWELFTH NIGHT at the National Theatre

     I probably know 12TH NIGHT better than any other Shakespeare play. I have directed it three times. I know its strengths and its pitfalls for a contemporary audience. I have also seen dozens of productions of the play and am always fascinated  with directors' approaches to it. So I looked forward to Peter Hall's new production at the National Theatre.
      What does one make of a virtually laugh-free TWELFTH NIGHT? Is the problem with the play or with the production?  The National Theatre invited Peter Hall, on the occasion of his eightieth birthday, to do a production of his choice. He chose to do TWELFTH NIGHT in the small Cottesloe Theatre with his daughter, Rebecca Hall, as Viola. It is not surprising that this TWELFTH NIGHT focused more on Viola than most productions. Yes, she is at the center of the play, but other characters are as important. Hall is such a wonderful, charismatic actress that one would have to surround her with stronger personalities than the ones Hall chose for the play to be in balance.
      TWELFTH NIGHT is the last of the joyful comedies before Shakespeare's work became darker and more complex. It contains elements of happy earlier works like THE COMEDY OF ERRORS (twins, mistaken identities, farce elements) and AS YOU LIKE IT (girl disguised as boy, proxy courtship, love at first sight, clown), but far more beautiful poetry. AS YOU LIKE IT and MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING are more prose heavy. One remembers the lovely verse of TWELFTH NIGHT. More than the earlier comdies, there's a sense of danger here, a sense that there's a dark side to the laughter. The crucial thing for any director is to find the balance between dark and light. There was little light in this production. I have read of productions from half a century ago that emphasized the melancholy of the play. Peter Hall, who has been directing since the nineteen-fifties, seems still to be a proponent of that kind of production. It was clearly spoken, but dull in places.
      What went wrong? One can begin with the casting of Orsino and Olivia. The first scene sets the tone for the play. If Orsino is lugubrious, if the actor and director don't see his silliness, the play starts off on the wrong foot. Orsino's poetry verges on bathos. It's all overdone. He calls for excess. TWELFTH NIGHT is about excess -- Orsino's self indulgent emotion, Olivia's excessive grieving (covering the walls with tear-making brine is silly excess). Toby's excessive drinking, Malvolio's excessive "self-regard." That excess has to be funny. We shouldn't take Orsino too seriously, but we should believe that Viola would fall in love with him. This dull, homely, tmiddle-aged Orsino would hardly inspire love in a relatively sane teenage girl. I believe the excesses of the characters in TWELFTH NIGHT are the excesses of youth. It is clear from the text that Viola and her twin brother are adolescents. It is also clear that Olivia and Orsino are young. Otherwise why is Olivia still unmarried? So why did we have a middle-aged Orsino and a matronly Olivia? Amanda Drew spoke Olivia's lines clearly, but there never was a character there. The dreary Orsino and Olivia fought the comic potential of their characters.
     I don't totally blame the production for the fact that the more comic characters didn't elicit much laughter. Their scenes get tiresome. Simon Paisley Day found no humor in Malvolio which is a valid way to play him, but not a very enjoyable one. Hall is right in asserting in the 1960 essay reprinted in the program that Malvolio should not be a sympathetic character, but can't he still be a figure of fun? Simon Callow was a charming Sir Toby. Sir Andrew was too good-looking, but sweet. He was, if anything, too sympathetic to be funny. Hall obviously wanted his comic actors to be believable in a realistic sense, but a lot of TWELFTH NIGHT is farce, and if the comic scenes aren't funny, what's their point? I totally disagree with how Maria was portrayed. Sir Toby might be a drunk, but he is also a snob which is why he so despises Malvolio's assumptions of a higher social position than he deserves. If Maria (Finty Williams, Judi Dench's daughter) is played as a common serving wench rather than a Lady-in-Waiting, why would Toby associate with her? She isn't Doll Tearsheet. And who is Fabian supposed to be? One of the problems in the play is that Fabian pops up halfway through the play with no introduction. It is important to establish him visually earlier so we know his role in Olivia's household. I don't think Toby consorts with servants, so he must have a higher social position. This Fabian seemed to be some sort of yeoman farmer.
     The most controversial casting for critics has been the elderly David Ryall as Feste. Hall states in his 1960 essay (I repeat the date of this essay because I think Hall's ideas about the play were fixed half a century ago) that Feste is "bitter, insecure, singing the old half-forgotten songs to the Duke,  .  .  . his jokes now tarnished and not very successful." This may be a valid reading of Feste, but it is not a very entertaining one. The Fool in KING LEAR is bitter, but still funny. This jester isn't good company and can't even sing.
     Any energy this production had depended on Rebecca Hall, a beautiful, charismatic actress. Her Viola didn't have much of a sense of humor. I think Shakespeare and Viola see the humor in Olivia's love for her as well as the similarity in Olivia's hopeless love and hers for Orsino. Here it was dead serious.
      Hall seemed to be skittish about Antonio's love for Sebastian. Has Sebastian reciprocated? Since Ben Mansfield is far from being an adolescent, his Sebastian certainly would have understood Antonio's protestations of love. It all seemed very pre- gay liberation. If one is going to take characters' emotions as seriously as Hall does, then Antonio's love and loss of Sebastian should not be forced to the margins in the final scene.
     It was nice to see a simple, intimate TWELFTH NIGHT. However, as an elderly person perhaps I shouldn't say this, but this was an elderly man's production of TWELFTH NIGHT, a youthful play about the silliness of youth and maturing into real, loving relationships. I watched the production unmoved and unamused.
TWELFTH NIGHT. Royal National Theatre Cottesloe Theatre. January 31, 2011.       

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