Twelfth Night – August 2007

10/10

By: William Shakespeare

Directed by: Philip Franks

Venue: Chichester Festival Theatre

Date: Tuesday 14th August 2007

We didn’t have the best of starts to tonight’s performance. The journey over was done in pouring rain, and we squelched our way to the theatre only to find the foyer jam-packed with other theatregoers as the doors hadn’t opened yet, and only ten minutes to go before the scehduled start. When we finally got seated, I was amazed to find that we were only a few minutes after the start time, and the play itself began fairly soon after that.

I had been worried that the warm-up might affect my enjoyment of the play (I can get a real sulk on me at times) but I was proved absolutely, completely, and blissfully wrong when we were treated to one of the best Twelfth Night’s I’m ever likely to see. I was puzzled at first to see three men come on stage, one standing at the back, one, the butler or manservant, off to one side, and another attendant sitting on the other side. The music, played on the phonograph (see below) was lovely and sad (Elgar’s Sospiri, per the program notes) and then I realised! We’d seen two productions (Chekov International Theatre Festival meets Cheek by Jowl, and Propeller) where the opening scene was the aftermath of the shipwreck, and I’d forgotten (oh, so quickly) that the opening scene in the generally accepted text is Orsino’s “If music be the food of love…”. Blow me down with a feather, we were not only getting Shakespeare’s language, we seemed to be getting his version of the play as well! What a turn up! Recovering my composure quickly, I focused on watching this performance with an open mind, with one further adjustment later.

Best to describe the set now, before I get too carried away. At the back of the stage was a wall of glass panels, as in a Victorian style large conservatory, with three sets of double doors. A curved walkway in front led to some steps on our right, and below these was a beautiful floor design, suggestive of many things. The interior was blue and shiny, looking like a pool or a water splash. There were tendrils of water spiralling out from this centre, and at first I wasn’t sure if they were wet or dry. Dry, as it turned out. Interlaced with the water spirals was a rough, textured shoreline, looking like sandbars, with one or two areas of planking, as in a jetty. In front of the walkway were a couple of patches of sand grasses, left and centre, and to the right of the pool, on the slant, was a bench, while on the left was a box of some kind (turned out to be a piano), also on the slant, as if half buried in the sand. These gave a wonderful sense of flotsam and jetsam, the after effects of the shipwreck, as well as being practical stage furniture. With the glassy blue of the pond and the greyish colour of the sandbars, there was also a hint of winter and a frozen pond, which was quite appropriate at the end when Feste wraps his coat around himself for the final song. And of course they also suggested the sea, and the beach. This was a masterpiece of design.

Above all this hung several items which were lowered to illustrate and enhance various parts of the story (this is a bit like The Generation Game – can I remember what was on the conveyer belt?). There was a model of a large ship (four funnels – possibly the Titanic?), a life belt (according to Steve, it said SS Rodrigo – the name Sebastian uses when he’s first rescued), a toy dog on wheels, an old style phonograph with trumpet loudspeaker, a plant pot with a tuft of very dead-looking plant, a candelabra, and a pair of tannoy loudspeakers. I will try to remember to mention each item as it’s lowered down. I’ll just mention now that during the interval the chair and piano were removed, so the set for the second half was as for the first but without the integral seating. Costumes were Edwardian glamour, with a strong touch of Upstairs, Downstairs.

Martin Turner as Orsino listened to the music for quite a while. This was no hardship. At the end, he gave us the lines beautifully, and I got the impression of an older, world-weary Orsino, who’s perhaps in love with Olivia because there’s nothing else to fill his days. Let’s face it, he doesn’t seem to have spent much time with her up to now, so his references to “fancy” may imply there’s no real basis for his love – an elderly Romeo falling for a younger Rosalind perhaps? All the lines were delivered well, throughout the play, and I heard far more than I usually do, which made it all the richer. I also liked Orsino’s moodiness when he wants the music, then doesn’t, and also when he changes mood at the end of the scene, from being upbeat about Olivia’s capacity for love, to being gloomy again. Perhaps he’d just reminded himself of what he hadn’t got?

Viola (Laura Rees) was carried on by her sea captain, and set down in the middle of the stage. She seemed a perky waif, a bit dishevelled by being nearly drowned, but not particularly affected by her experiences. This was where I had to do another mental adjustment to stop myself from failing to appreciate the performance. I’d been used to recent Violas being more emotional and more obviously grief-stricken, but this performance was different. This Viola was showing more resourcefulness and humour, and fewer outward signs of grief, and it was both perfectly valid and a very good performance. I still found the “My brother, he is in Elysium” very moving, and had a little sniffle. (I had several more sniffles and an outright sob later on – great fun.) This was a very good scene for telling us where we are, who the relevant characters are, and what the situation is.

Another benefit of this production is that it’s an ensemble piece along with Macbeth. As a result, we have such a tremendous cast for this play that many of the relatively minor parts were played by hugely talented and skilled actors. With such a beefing up of all the roles, the whole production soared to new heights, and there was not one weak area.

The next scene showed this up very well. We get to meet Sir Toby (Paul Shelley), Maria (Suzanne Burden), and later Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Scott Handy). Maria is doing her best to warn Sir Toby that his drunken revels will get him into trouble, but he’s not bothered. A couple of maids have brought on the tea tray, and he has a cup of tea, flirting with the maids as he does. He also tips some whisky from his hip flask into the cup. It’s clear he likes a good time, and that Maria has a soft spot for him, though not as completely as later?

Sir Andrew arrives, fresh from bathing, judging by his swimsuit. Scott Handy played him marvellously well. It’s a difficult part, because on the one hand he is a fool, and the butt of many a joke, but he is also hard done by, and his relationship with Sir Toby is one of the darker aspects of the play. Here we have a Sir Andrew who’s infatuated with Sir Toby, always trying to be like him, to copy what he says and does, and who is all too easy to gull. I got the impression he’s up from the country, with lots of money and not much in the way of brains, almost childlike. It was possible to laugh at him, but I did feel very moved by his “I was adored once too”; it suggested a missed opportunity that might have made his life turn out very differently. The dancing that he did, in fact all the dancing in the production, was contemporary to the setting – early 1920s. Sir Andrew’s efforts included a kind of vertical doggy-paddle, and were suitably funny.

Back at Orsino’s court, the next scene was done as a picnic, with flasks of tea and a rug. Then we see Maria chiding Feste (Michael Feast). He’s carrying a large suitcase, and is on the tart and cynical side. He certainly knows what’s going on between people, as his comments about Sir Toby and Maria indicate.

Olivia (Kate Fleetwood) arrives with her entourage. Malvolio (Patrick Stewart) is holding her umbrella, and is dressed like a butler. I noticed he had that slight head tremor which is often associated with very rigid people. Olivia is more sprightly than is usual, and really does enjoy Feste’s wit, smiling if not actually laughing, and sitting beside him on one of the benches. She’s quite strict in rebuffing Malvolio about his attitude. Malvolio is played with a strong Scottish accent, which fits the lines perfectly, and reminds me of a dourer version of Mr Hudson. He’s completely contemptuous of Feste, and we can see the battle lines being drawn already.

Now Viola arrives, and we see several attempts by Olivia to find out who this messenger is. Finally Malvolio reports on him in a very long-winded, pedantic way, and is most surprised later to be told to leave along with the rest of the servants. He peers back through the window as he leaves, which got a good laugh.

For once, Maria isn’t asked to put on her veil to confuse Viola (it’s not in the text), and despite this, the scene worked perfectly well, with Viola/Cesario’s questions about who the lady of the house is seeming more impertinent, but also more practical. This scene was very brisk, and although it lost some of the details I’m used to from other productions, it did get across how Viola’s passion for Orsino is conveyed in her speeches to Olivia, and it’s this that Olivia falls for. It’s as if Viola was wooing Olivia herself, and yet she’s just expressing her own love for Orsino. I also got the need Viola has to see Olivia’s face – she wants to see what she’s up against, and finds the competition pretty stiff, looks-wise.

Antonio and Sebastian’s scene is set in a railway station – lowering of tannoy speakers. Antonio is really keen on Sebastian, and dashes after him to catch the same train. When Malvolio catches Cesario, I was aware that she covers up for Olivia by not disclosing that she left no ring. Again, Viola is pretty cheerful through her working out that Olivia is in love with her boyish disguise, but it all came across clearly.

Now we have Sir Toby and Sir Andrew carousing in the wee small hours. Feste joins in, and again the phonograph is deployed. (It had a slight problem which meant we heard it scratching away for a bit, but that was soon sorted.) Michael Feast demonstrated what a good voice he has with Feste’s song, and when Maria arrives, there are two or three other servants with her. We’re treated to a dance number, with everyone joining in except Sir Andrew. Malvolio arrives, and puts a stop to the party atmosphere. He’s very unpleasant, especially to Maria, and I could see how he’s set himself up for their revenge. Maria’s device is clearly thought up as she speaks, and much appreciated by the two knights.

Back at the Duke’s, the music is played by two of Orsino’s servants – one on the piano buried in the sand, and the other playing a guitar? (possibly – it’s been a while). Viola’s suffering is clear to see, and Orsino obviously feels a strong affection for this boy, but without any of the uneasiness that’s often shown. Viola is actually kissed three times in this production – once by Orsino, once by Olivia in a later scene, which she doesn’t exactly fight off, and once by Antonio, which really throws her. She also kisses Orsino once herself, at the end.

Now for the big set piece of the play – the gulling of Malvolio. Sir Toby, Sir Andrew and Fabian are concealed behind an inconspicuous huge red umbrella or parasol, which may not be out of place on a beach, but is perhaps the most unusual hiding place I’ve seen for this bit. Naturally, they keep poking their heads up to say their lines, and Sir Andrew keeps his up too long at one point. When Malvolio “revolves”, Sir Andrew is in plain view, but Malvolio is so wrapped up in himself, he doesn’t see him at first. By the time he does a slow double take, Sir Andrew has had time to get into hiding again.

Patrick Stewart’s performance as Malvolio is the best thing I’ve seen in a long time. He’s a nasty piece of work, and Patrick Stewart doesn’t hold back with playing that side of his character. He insults Feste, has a go at Sir Toby (quite reasonably, in the circumstances), and threatens Maria, as well as raising suits against others, such as Viola’s sea captain. In this scene, he’s positively leering as he describes his idea of married life with Olivia, and he’s even got the proof that such things can happen – he shows us a copy of the Tatler where the pictures prove that “the lady of Strachy married the yeoman of the wardrobe”. We’re all ready to see him taken down a peg or eighteen, when he chances on the letter. The first four lines are written on the outside of the letter, and then we get to the prose bit inside. The reading of the lines was excellent, and the scene was immensely funny. His reactions to the contents inside were fantastic – he’s overjoyed to find she loves him. Malvolio didn’t practise his smiling at this point, so we get to see the fully rehearsed version later. I wasn’t always aware of the reactions from the others, as Malvolio was so funny.

After the interval, with the set slightly adjusted, we get a very evocative seaside interlude, as Feste does his Punch and Judy for a couple of youngsters, another child has her balloon popped by an unpleasant young man, the policeman strolls around chatting to one or two folk, and all is summer jollity. Sebastian and Antonio treat us to scene 3 (before we’ve had one and two), and as they talk, a gentleman who’s been reclining on the far side of the beach, reading his paper, seems to recognise Antonio. He goes over to speak to the policeman, indicating Antonio, and although they don’t do anything more at this time, it’s obvious he’s been rumbled. As everyone disappears, and Feste is packing up his folding Punch and Judy kit into his suitcase, Viola arrives, and starts Act 3 scene 1 proper, by asking Feste if he lives by his tabor. Again, the wit is lively, and sets us up nicely for the next part.

When Olivia and Maria enter, Sir Andrew is well taken with Viola’s words to Olivia, and it’s clear he intends to mangle together a sentence using them all as soon as he can. When they’re told to leave, he’s made at least one failed attempt to give Olivia a present, and he lingers as long as possible behind the glass doors, muttering “odours”, “pregnant”, etc.

After Viola and Olivia have had another verbal tussle, it’s the turn of Sir Toby and Fabian to set up Sir Andrew for the duel with Cesario. Sir Toby’s unkindness is starting to show more clearly, and his character’s darker side is coming to the fore. Next Maria prepares us for the entrance of Malvolio.

Olivia herself comes on first, and we can see she’s being seriously affected by her infatuation with Cesario. Her hair is starting to come down, and she’s much more emotional than any Olivia I’ve ever seen. Later on, she’s actually crying because she can’t get what she wants. This time, though, her additional edginess works really well to set up her reactions to Malvolio’s preposterous appearance.

Maria and another maid are with her when Malvolio arrives, and they spend most of their time trying to shield her from him. At one point, Olivia’s standing on the chair with the maids in front of her. Malvolio’s in a kilt (naturally, given the accent), and his stockings are indeed yellow, and seriously cross-gartered. His first grin got a good laugh, and he continues to grimace for all he’s worth throughout the scene. When Olivia asks if he will go to bed, he runs his hand up her leg. He also brandishes his legs, and even waggles them when he’s lying on the ground. They’re all running away from him, but he keeps on going, and when they run off at the end, lifts his kilt to flash them. It was very funny.

Now they’ve gone, he can admit to the tightness of the garters, and sits down to untie them. He’s tremendously dismissive of Sir Toby, and as he reties his garters in order to leave, I can see that he’s tying them the wrong way round – effectively tying his knees together. Sure enough, when he gets up to make a dignified exit, he finds he can’t move his legs separately, and has to make an uncomfortable decision. Does he redo them, or does he hop off the stage, hoping no one will notice? Being the kind of character he is, and not wanting to admit to a mistake, he chooses to hop, and we were in fits of laughter as he tries to maintain his dignity while hopping to the edge of the stage with his knees together. There’s another decision point as he comes to the steps and realises what he’s let himself in for. It’s a tribute to Patrick Stewart’s fitness that he’s able to have Malvolio, after an agonising pause for thought, hop down the steps and off the stage. It just about brought the house down. I have no idea what the other characters were up to – I only had eyes for Malvolio. Brilliant.

The duel was good fun as well. It’s clear neither duellist wants to fight, and again we see the unpleasant side of Sir Toby. Antonio breaks up the fight, and when he asks for his money back, we can see Viola grasping the possibility that Sebastian is alive very quickly. It’s also the first time Cesario’s integrity has been questioned, though not the last. It’s about here that I started seeing this as a farce, with all the threads being carefully woven to give us the marvellous comedy of their unravelling.

The abuse of Malvolio was unpleasant, and I felt he was very badly treated, despite all his own unpleasantness earlier. It was clear that Sir Toby realised he couldn’t keep this sort of behaviour up any longer.

Sebastian was also very good. He handled the possibility of his madness remarkably well, as well as his sudden marriage to a beautiful woman – he’s got some brains, that boy. For the final revelation, Viola is standing at the front of the stage, with Orsino in front of her so that Sebastian can’t see her when he rushes on from the back. When they do see each other, and circle round, warily, I was sobbing with the emotion of it all. At the end, Antonio leaves the stage, a free man but without the man he loves, while the others gather behind the glass walls of the conservatory to celebrate. Feste comes out to sing us his final song, and that’s it.

Well, I didn’t manage to put in where each item was lowered down, but that’s tough luck – I’ve written quite enough for one play. I particularly liked the excellent reactions from the spare characters on stage – often they don’t seem to be fully participating, but tonight they were completely involved and responding noticeably to the main action. I so want this production to transfer, but sadly, it seems it’s only the Macbeth that will be going to London. A shame.

The post-show was interesting, and we found out that Michael Feast apparently suggested that Patrick Stewart play Malvolio with a Scottish accent. With Macbeth, there were a lot of men crammed into one small dressing room over at the Minerva, and they had a running joke going with Scottish accents. After the suggestion, Patrick Stewart tried it out, and found it fitted the lines perfectly, so the rest evolved from that. I don’t remember much more of what was said now, but the performance will live on in my memory for a long time. Hopefully, I’ll still be able to enjoy future productions, and if they’re half as good as this one I’ll count myself lucky.

© 2007 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

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