Twelfth Night – March 2007


By: William Shakespeare

Directed by: Declan Donnellan

Company: Chekov International Theatre Festival

Venue: Swan Theatre

Date: Thursday 1st March 2007

This was a superb production, with many, many great aspects, especially the acting, the staging, and the music. It was directed by Declan Donnellan, whose Cheek By Jowl productions have always been enjoyable. Why only 6/10? Shakespeare is still about the language, and I sorely missed it in this performance. Some languages, like Russian and Chinese, from experience, have such a different rhythm and cadence to English, that the feel of the piece changes too much, and I notice the lack. Having said that, this was about the best Twelfth Night I’m likely to see, so maybe I’ll change my mind about the rating at some point. (If it had been in English, it would have easily rated 10/10.)

It was an all male production, not unusual these days (as if there wasn’t already a dearth of good parts for women!), but unlike Propeller, these men did try to look and act like women, and managed it very successfully too. I will refer to the actors as he/she according to their roles as much as possible, though Viola/Cesario is going to be fun! The stage was bare, brick walls showing at the back. Buff coloured board gave us a floor, and that was pretty much it at the start. All the men came on to begin the performance, dressed in white shirts and black trousers, with braces, and carrying instruments. They started with a song, and one chap, standing towards the front, was obviously Orsino. I expected him to launch into “If music be the food of love…”, but it didn’t quite work out that way. Instead we were treated to some of Viola’s lines about losing her brother in the storm. The other actors gathered round, and voila! Viola has a skirt wrapped round her waist. Then she asks the captain who has rescued her about their locality, and he points out Olivia – another actor steps forward – and Orsino – as previously suspected.

At this point I’ve lost track of the exact order of the staging (doesn’t take much to throw me off, you may be thinking, but that’s the trouble when directors play fast and loose with the order of events – it’s great fun, but impossible to remember in detail afterwards). I remember being impressed with Olivia even at this early stage – she stood very still, poised but clearly grieving, looking feminine with just a skirt wrapped round her waist. At some point she also leaves the stage, and we get going with Orsino’s musical foray. They’ve got a pretty good combo going there, the music was excellent throughout, and this was quite a catchy number, with a bit of a beat.

A feature of this production was the overlapping of scenes. Instead of waiting for a scene to end and everyone to get off stage before the next lot troop on (the queuing option), we often had characters from one scene hold still for a few seconds while the next scene got underway, then the first lot would do the final line or lines of their scene, and sweep off past the next scene’s entrants. Good fun, and partly explains how they got the running time down to two and a half hours. The other reason was some hefty cutting, which if anything helped to make the story clearer. That, and the great acting.

This overlapping happened here, with Viola coming back on, dressed in a rather nice straight velour dress, in a peachy/gold colour. This is where we get the line that usually has me in tears – “What should I do in Illyria? My brother, he is in Elysium.” It didn’t affect me at all this time, and that’s probably the major reason I missed Shakespeare’s language. However, I did get my emotional fix later.

At some point, a set of black cloths fell down from a rail at the back of the stage. I had noticed the off-white versions of these earlier, but the black ones had escaped my attention. I liked the way these gave a very simple and effective amount of setting to each scene. In the garden, they could be trees to hide behind. Indoors, they allowed for doors and walls. Also, the overall use of black for everything except Viola’s dress and Orsino’s dressing-gown set the tone of mourning brilliantly. The second half would use cream cloths and costumes to suggest the theme of love, and the changeover was very effective.

Some thoughts on the performances:

Sir Toby – excellent. A really unpleasant drunk. Only problem was, what does Maria see in him? He even hits her. Although he does make it up to her by getting her drunk, so she ends up joining in an even more raucous chorus than the one she stopped. It was a great performance, showing us his drunkenness and ability to manipulate Sir Andrew.

Maria – good performance as a woman. She comes across as more of a worrier, and perhaps that’s why this one goes for Sir Toby – he’s a good retirement plan. She does have some wits, but not as much as I’d like to see.

Sir Andrew was younger than some I’ve seen, and much more modern in dress. He’s an obvious fop and a fool, but without some of the wistfulness I’ve seen in some others – “I was adored once” sounds more like claiming everything Sir Toby claims rather than a pang of lost love. Best bit – standing in front of the cloths in the garden scene after Malvolio comes back in front.

Malvolio – very proper and stiff. A cross between a butler and an undertaker, and better looking than most who play this part. He really is a Puritan, and there’s some lovely business with Olivia lighting up a crafty fag when Malvolio’s out of the room, only to pass it to Feste when he comes back – Feste doesn’t mind taking the heat off his mistress. In some ways this was the most interesting performance. Most Malvolios nowadays are played almost as clowns, just for laughs. This Malvolio seemed to be just a very uptight steward with ideas above his station. His reading of the letter was excellent, even though it lost some of the humour (and I noticed the interruptions pretty much dried up at that point – some were definitely cut). His little bow of head at the end, when they were taking their bows, was still very much in character, and he gets to say his “I’ll be revenged on the pack of you” to the entire audience at the very end. Nicely done.

Viola/Cesario – good, only problem was I felt it was less obvious that she was a she when in Cesario’s togs. The emotions and thought processes came across well, and at the end I got a real sense of everything piling up on her as all the accusations of treachery and violence mount up.

Sebastian – good. Liked the end, when he comes on through the cloths, not seeing Viola, who’s shrinking back into them, with everyone else clustered at the front of the stage. Good match for Viola, and that’s often a benefit of ensembles.

Olivia – superb. Dignified, poised, yet capable of behaving a bit naughtily, and of going overboard when presented with a handsome young man. She was smart to lock herself away to mourn her brother – one look and she’s hooked. Brilliant.

Orsino – good, not much of a part, except at the end, when he and Olivia still mistake the twins, and he apologises to Sebastian in that manly way. No sign that he’s in love with Cesario/Viola before the end.

Feste – also superb. A wrinkly jester, who sings a mean song, and competes with Sir Toby to get to the fallen money first. Some of Maria’s lines were passed to him during the drinking scene, and it worked very well. He’s an old retainer, and a smooth operator.

Antonio, the sea-captain deserves a special mention – he took a small part and made it memorable. He’s obviously smitten with Sebastian.

I liked a lot of the staging as well. Orsino’s servants were reluctant to step back fully when Orsino tells them to, when he wants to have a private word with Cesario. When Malvolio catches up with Cesario to “return” Olivia’s ring, he’s able to do so because Antonio’s presence on stage has held Cesario up. Sir Toby and Sir Andrew had obviously visited the off licence before returning to Olivia’s house, as they had a carrier bag filled with booze with them. Sir Toby copied Sir Andrew’s dancing, and Cesario got completely carried away playing the tambourine during Feste’s song.

The duels were both well done, the mock one as well as the real one. The cowardice of both Cesario and Sir Andrew were very clear, and very entertaining. I had my emotional fix with the line “I am all the brothers of my father’s house and all the sisters too.”

Sir Toby and Feste both rushed to grab the money thrown down by Antonio after he thinks Sebastian has denied him help. Malvolio’s cross-gartered yellow stockings were relatively subdued, which fitted well with this production, and later, when imprisoned for madness, he appears in the straightjacket on the darker stage down below, with the others on the upper gallery, lit.

When Viola comes back on in her frock, Orsino takes a bit of time to decide how to treat her, before kissing her. Olivia kisses Sebastian, and thank God, there’s no silly reaction from the audience – it was quite a moving moment. I noticed Viola’s reaction to Antonio’s story; she realises Sebastian is probably alive.

Often someone would pause the action, with the other actors freezing, to say an aside, although some asides were said right in front of the other characters without this. The surtitles were edited severely – we probably only got about half to two-thirds of the lines, regardless of what had been cut from the text.

They finished with a song, and another catchy number, too, with Malvolio back as the faithful servant, serving champagne to everyone. This allowed him to speak his final line at the front of the stage, with everyone else celebrating behind him.

There were a lot of interesting images in this production. I loved the work they’ve obviously done on movement, and there was a lot of detail in all the performances. I’d certainly see this company again.

© 2007 Sheila Evans at

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