"'Tis not for gravity to play at cherry-pit with Satan." Act III, scene iv
|Royal Shakespeare Company ; November 5, 2009 Stratford-upon-Avon|
Director : Gregory Doran ; Starring : Jo Stone-Fewings, Nancy Carroll, Miltos Yerolemou, Alexandra Gilbreath, James Fleet, Sam Alexander, Simeon Moore, Richard McCabe
Reviewed on : 2009-11-11 15:49:38 ; Reviewed by : Coen Heijes
|Between Love and Madness Lies … Obsession
RSC’s Chief Associate Director Gregory Doran directs Twelfth Night, which runs at the Courtyard Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon from 15th October to 21st November 2009 before transferring to the Duke of York’s Theatre in London’s West End from 19th December 2009 to 27th February 2010. The information on the RSC website on this production opens with a clear reference to the central theme of this production: “Everyone is looking for love – some in impossible places. Some mourn the love they have lost. Some long for love they are refused. In Illyria love aches and madness rules.” The same words were picked up in the production programme, which referred to a recent Calvin Klein advert: “Between Love and Madness lies … Obsession.” It was this obsession in love and what it might lead to, that would fully be explored in this production.
Robert Jones’ set design created the tone for the production. As the audience filtered in, they were confronted with a Greek stage with Near East influences. In the background a huge wall of white sandstone closed off the stage, with one doorway stage right. A huge Ionic pillar which reached almost to the top of the theatre, stood next to this entrance with two smaller, broken down pillars next to it. Upstage, we could see three small chairs with intricate Arabic woodcarving; centre stage, a huge Persian carpet with a whole bunch of big cushions on it, and downstage another, smaller Persian carpet with cushions. The dominant colours were red, brown, ochre, orange, and the impression was that of a luxurious palace or tent of an Ottoman nobleman in Greece.
Illyria in Shakespeare’s days was part of the Ottoman Empire and situated on the edge of the eastern shores of the Adriatic Sea, roughly in the area of Albania and Croatia. It was a dangerous place and shipwrecks and pirates were not at all uncommon there: Shakespeare frequently refers to them in Twelfth Night. However, the view today of Illyria has changed and it has evolved into a strange, exotic and enchanted Neverland. This more poetic version of Illyria originated in the 18th and 19th century as the Grand Tours of the young aristocrats took them to the Levant, particularly as they had to skirt the Napoleonic Europe. It was this version of Illyria that Doran evoked in his production of Twelfth Night, and the programme paid specific attention to this era and discussed some of the “Levant Lunatics”, the obsessively enthusiastic and romantic visitors of the area. One of them was Lady Hesther Stanhope, who, having lost her entire wardrobe off the coast and not wanting to wear a veil, decided to dress as a man for the rest of her life in Rhodes. Another one of the Levant Lunatics was Lord Byron, who was obviously reflected onstage in Orsino.
The first people to enter this Greek, Ottoman stage were three musicians, dressed in Arab garb, with a guitar, mandolin and a violin, who seated themselves upstage on the three chairs and started playing. The music (composed by Paul Englishby for this production) started with a romantic, melancholy, slow-moving tune, which fitted the 19th century world of the Levant Lunatics. In their next melody they changed to an Arab tune, immediately recognizable as such, because of its distinctive musical scale consisting of seventeen unequal elements. Their final melody was again based on a western musical scale, this time using a more upbeat and gypsy-like melody, complementing this strange and Ottoman culture, in which English people had settled. During the musical introduction - which lasted about five minutes, continuing during the filtering in of audience, until after the audience lights faded out - another actor, barefoot and in Arab garb, slowly walked the edges of the stage, twice, all the while swinging a censer, thereby including the audience by way of scent in the Greek, Ottoman setting. In an interview at the Courtyard Theatre, Doran himself described this Illyrian setting as fraught with “heaviness, while at the same time everybody seems to be on this obsessive high quite a lot of the time. […] It is a world that is dangerous, but also had an attractive element of decadence and the exotic about it.”
Orsino, who entered in a long ruby-coloured gown with an intricate golden design, seemed to fit perfectly into this world. He was the embodiment of the Levant Lunatic and Doran commented that “[…] Orsino with his extravagant, fantastical poetical imagination is a kind of Byron,” directly linking him to the timeframe of the setting. Ironically, the actor Jo Stone-Fewings played Orsino once before, in the 2001 RSC production by Lindsay Posner, and even though that production was set in the Edwardian period, newspaper reviews pointed out his Byronesque portrayal of the role. As the messenger entered to deliver that he might not be admitted to Olivia, Orsino reacted by falling face down into the big heap of pillows which lay downstage, in a clear and humorous expression of the futility and extravagance of his obsession. As he uttered the phrase “That strain again, it had a dying fall” (1.1.4), the musicians did not take this as a command to replay that bit of music, which often happens in productions where Orsino is taking a more active role, but were content to play on, as if being aware that Orsino seemed to be more talking to himself than to them. It was a pattern throughout the production that stressed his lethargy and his obsessive and mesmerizing lovesickness, rather than an active participation and aggression. This was supported by the clothing, as Orsino was shown to be an expat who might go native at home, but reverted to an English jockey-costume (which Cesario and Sebastian wore all through the production) whenever he went out. It added to the sense of dreamy make-believe of Orsino’s obsession. Byronesque this Orsino might be, but without the revolutionary aggression and power that was also attributed to this Anglo-Greek ‘war hero’.
The same might be said of the scenes in which Orsino and Cesario come together. Rather than stressing the erotic tensions in Orsino’s attitude towards Cesario, which most productions nowadays seem to prefer, this production had an Orsino who was more Narcissistic. A telling moment was when Orsino portrayed Cesario’s face:
Is not more smooth and rubious, thy small pipe
Is as the maiden’s organ, shrill and sound,
And all is semblative a woman’s part. (1.4.31-34)
Most productions have Orsino becoming almost hypnotized by Cesario’s face, running his hand over her face or tracing his finger down her chest, as he speaks these words, and have him tearing himself away with some effort as if uncertain of what is happening to him. In this production, however, there was no physical contact and at times Orsino was more talking to himself than to Cesario, (played by Nancy Carroll, who actually married Stone-Fewings in real life in 2003 and has a daughter with him). Orsino seemed to be more entranced with the idea of love and his ideal female, while looking into an unknown distance, than with the person in front of him. Consistently throughout the production a clear pattern of physical distance between Orsino and Cesario was maintained, further reducing any hint of gender confusion or sexual ambivalence that most productions and critics are so enamored with. In the other major scene between Orsino and Cesario, where they discuss the properties of male and female love, Orsino was much more taken by the melancholy of Feste, played by Miltos Yerolemou, while he sang his song about being “slain by a fair cruel maid” (2.4.56) all the while holding a skull in his hand. There was an almost absent, opium-like quality to his love, a lethargic and Narcissistic longing for the grand idea, which would not be distracted by the flesh and blood of Cesario.
The same pattern was used in the scenes between Cesario and Olivia (Alexandra Gilbreath). Although Olivia became enamoured of Cesario, they consistently kept a proper physical distance, even when Olivia fully expressed her passion:
I love thee so that, maugre all thy pride,
Nor wit nor reason can my passion hide.
Do not extort thy reasons from this clause,
For that I woo, thou therefore hast no cause,
But rather reason thus with reason fetter:
Love sought is good, but given unsought is better. (3.1.132-137)
Most productions have Olivia moving towards Cesario during these lines, and embracing her, or kissing her hands or lips, but no such thing was happening here. They kept a steady two to three yards between them on stage and any complication on gender issues by having them touch or kiss was not explored here. Olivia’s obsession with unrequited love rather found expression in her reaction to Andrew Aguecheek’s, (James Fleet) cautious offer of red flowers, after Cesario had left. She tore them from his hands, flung them to the stage floor, and stormed off stage without any regard for Aguecheek’s feelings, in an awkward moment showing the egocentricity and cruel consequences of love.
Like Olivia, Cesario also showed no indication of being confused by Olivia’s love. The well-known phrase “I am the man” (2.2.20) was spoken by Cesario without as much as a smile, but rather with an expression of pity. When she expressed her own feelings, by voicing what she would do if she were in love, she addressed the audience instead of Olivia, paralleling Orsino’s far-off gazes. Staging it in this way effectively avoided any gender complications which would arise by having her address Olivia directly in these passionate lines:
Hallow your name to the reverberate hills
And make the babbling gossip of the air
Cry out ‘Olivia!’ O, you should not rest
Between the elements of air and earth,
But you should pity me! (1.5.205-209)
In the final scene of the play, Orsino, Viola and Cesario showed no unease at all at the revelations and happily accepted the turn of events. As Orsino mistakenly took hold of Sebastian’s hand during the lines “Cesario, come / For so you shall be, while you are a man” (5.1.367-368), there was no sense of gender confusion, it was merely laughed at as a joke. Also telling was that the national newspaper reviews virtually ignored the issue of androgyny or gender confusion.
The only person in the play who was allowed to cross the traditional gender lines was Antonio, played by Simeon Moore, who was presented as a tormented man, with a long pirate-like beard, wringing the cords of a leather bag all the time as he talked to Sebastian, (Sam Alexander). Of all the players on stage, Antonio was the only one allowed to physically embrace the person he loved. Doran commented on Antonio’s role: “I hate productions of Twelfth Night where Antonio is played and he is not gay. There are two characters in Shakespeare which are clearly gay, and they are both called Antonio [other play: Merchant of Venice].” However, Doran never overplayed Sebastian’s reaction to Antonio in this production and was more fascinated by love as such and “the obsessive nature of the characters and what they go through, and how obsession, just as in that Klein advert, lies between love and madness.”
The themes of love, obsession and madness were also explored in the subplot, which kept a steady balance between all-out comedy, the melancholy of the main plot, and the darker undertones of madness, persecution and loss. For the first hour, until scene 2.3, the production did not go for big laughs and Doran commented that “if the comedy is played absolutely riotous and a gag, when it comes to the scenes with Viola and Cesario, you are only waiting for the next punch-line and laugh.” In scene 2.3 the laughter was allowed full play, however, and the night scene was played hilariously over the top, with Toby Belch, (Richard McCabe) strutting the stage with a huge rotary dryer and Feste and Andrew carrying other kinds of household utensils, which they used to swing around in all directions or make music with to the roars of laughter from the audience, who were finally allowed some fine riotous comedy.
In the beginning of scene 2.3, however, when Feste sang his song, Toby and Andrew reclined on sofas, smoking from a water pipe as they were visibly impressed by Feste’s meditations on love. The lethargic longing of Orsino was reflected in these two mesmerizing lovers, staged here in the same setting as Orsino’s home. However, where Orsino almost reveled in his rejection and make-believe obsession, Toby’s emotions were much more flesh and blood and there was a visually stunning image in scene 2.3 as Feste moved close to Toby as he sang the line “In delay there lies no plenty” (2.3.37), and Toby was struggling not to break down and cry. Toby was not merely a boisterous character, but also a “self-loathing alcoholic with a huge Abyss in his life” as Doran commented. The scene ended on a melancholy note as Toby was left standing alone on stage, which is not supported by the original stage directions, and his final words were not spoken boisterously to Andrew, as is usual in productions, but were spoken tentatively and in a more introspective manner as if to arouse himself: “come, knight” (2.4.142). His was an Abyss he tried to fill by marrying Maria, self-confidently played by Pamela Nomvete. After realizing he had gone too far with the jest on Malvolio, supported by Maria’s obvious distaste as she turned her back on the prank, he left a small box on a stool upstage left as he left, addressing Maria without looking at her: “Come by and by to my chamber” (4.2.50). As Maria opened the box, it was shown to contain a ring; it would be the same ring that Maria flung back at Toby, who now followed her, as they walked the stage one last time at the end of the play, promising a far from easy relationship.
Feste’s role also explored the lighter and darker elements of this comedy. On the one hand, Feste was very acrobatic and dynamic and explored the relation with the audience to the fullest, as was best shown in the scene after the break. As the audience filed in, six musicians were playing, and Feste entered the stage, encouraging the audience to clap along with the melody. The song gradually moved towards a crescendo as Cesario entered the stage and started dancing along, while Feste moved all over the stage waving, pointing, grinning at the audience and urging them to clap along. It was part of a series of meta-theatrical touches, for which the text of Twelfth Night is also well-known, and which were exploited by most actors. In the letter scene, hilarious use was made of a box-tree, which hid Andrew, Toby and Fabian, all the while swinging precariously to and fro. This box-tree was lowered behind Andrew at the start of the scene, consequently scaring Sir Andrew out of his wits by the sudden appearance of a stage prop. The thrust stage of the Courtyard Theatre celebrates an actor-audience relationship and the meta-theatricality in Twelfth Night playfully built on the sense of the surreal in this world of Levant Lunatics, while drawing the audience deeper into this world by making it “part of the experience” as Doran commented.
As Feste’s dance ended to the thunderous applause of the audience, Cesario addressed Feste with the now very apt first words of scene 3.1: “Save thee, friend, and thy music” (3.1.1). The lights in the auditorium were doused some ten lines later at a hand signal by Cesario, and a line later turned on again as Feste snapped his fingers, thus adding a play of light to the textual word-play between them. Both the play on words and light ended as Feste responded to Cesario’s remark that he cared for nothing: “Not so, sir, I do care for something. But in my conscience, sir, I do not care for you: if that be to care for nothing, sir, I would it would make you invisible” (3.1.20-21). At the word ‘invisible’ the lights were turned off again, both in the auditorium and on stage, enhancing the invisibility that Feste mentioned, until the lights were turned on again at a cough by Cesario.
Feste, however, was more than an acrobatic entertainer and was also cast as being obsessive about Malvolio. When Yerolemou asked Doran how to make Feste funny, Doran replied by saying: “Don’t. Feste is a real person in a real world; there is an unstable situation in a household, Malvolio is in office, you might be fired.” There are not a lot of laughs in a household like that and in their first confrontation in scene 1.5, as Malvolio criticized him, Feste’s face expressed anger and uncertainty. After Malvolio had tried to quiet their carousing in scene 2.3 and Maria started explaining the prank to be played on Malvolio, Feste did not join the conspiracy but kept staring for minutes into the trapdoor into which Malvolio had disappeared and then followed him into it. Scene 4.2, where Malvolio is deluded by Feste as Sir Topas, was never underplayed, but fully revealed the persecution of Malvolio who was imprisoned in an iron cage which rose no more than a foot above the stage floor. Where Toby realized he had gone too far, Feste continued mercilessly, while singing his song about madness and devils and dancing to the wild and exciting music. The music built to a crescendo and was reminiscent of the same sort of music immediately after the break and the very similarity helped to underscore the duality in Feste and the dangerous side of his obsession. It was an obsession that lasted until the very end of the production, and the last visual image for the audience was Feste upstage left and Malvolio centre stage middle glaring at each other in despite. Doran commented on this ending that “it’s nothing cuddly at the end; they play with a dangerous situation. They play with a man’s mind; they drive him mad, which happens to a lot of characters in the play. It is all part of the spectre, but they make Malvolio jump too far.”
Malvolio was played by Richard Wilson, well-known for his award-winning TV role as the grumpy Victor Meldrew in the BBC comedy series One Foot in the Grave, and harangued by Doran for years to play Malvolio. Grumpy and arrogant this Malvolio was, but he was never a Malvolio seriously engaged in a class struggle, but rather a confused old man, obsessed by love. Doran commented that he wanted Wilson to bring “truthfulness” to the character. Telling was Malvolio’s reaction to the found letter, in which he did not express any arrogance, but was rather moved and startled almost to tears by the discovery “that my lady loves me” (2.5.121). A wave of sympathy washed over the audience and when he slowly spoke a few lines later “I am happy” (2.5.124), pausing between each word, another wave of compassion rolled through the audience expressed in the form of a very audible ‘aah’. The grimness at the end did not come from Malvolio’s much discussed exit line “I’ll be revenged on the whole pack of you” (5.1.360), which was spoken off stage, thereby diminishing its impact. The grimness rather came from the uneasy memories of the way Malvolio had been treated, or Sir Andrew, who saw his flowers crushed on stage. One by one the lost souls passed by Feste as he sang his final song, until only he and Malvolio remained, providing a fitting end to the production. This Twelfth Night was not about gender confusion, sexual ambiguity, or the class struggle, which too often distract us from the fact that the play is also very much about love, madness and obsession, and people struggling with these issues. In this production Doran took us back to the core of Twelfth Night and even though at times characters in this production were caricatures, or were obsessed or diabolical, still Doran succeeded in making them, in his words, “truthful. And then I think the comedy is like a diamond; it shines more brilliant when set against a piece of black velvet. If you can really lay in the truthfulness of the characters, the darkness of the situation, the reality of the grief, then the comedy is a relief and shines more brightly.”
Sir John Gilbert, R.A.,
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