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  • Writer's pictureMarcus Bazley

23. Twelfth Night

My Shakespeare reading has all gone a bit off-kilter recently. A combination of bursts of intense work and now being laid up with pericarditis (an inflammation of the heart lining) has knocked me off my routine slightly – to say the least! But with 15 more plays left to read, I should still be on track to have finished them all by the time we hit the end of the year.

Twelfth Night is another one of Shakespeare’s plays that I felt fairly familiar with and is generally well-loved and often performed. Yet, on reading it this week, I was left somewhat underwhelmed. To me, it feels like a play that was probably written in a bit of a rush. Like most things that are thrown together quickly, they have moments of absolute brilliance and other moments where it feels a little confused. Now, this might be slightly unfair (I haven’t done any research into the history of the play) but that’s how it comes across to me.

My first thought is that everyone in Illyria is completely bonkers. And I don’t think directors tend to embrace this enough. I feel there’s a tendency to treat everything very reverentially and seriously, when actually a lot of it is plain silliness. Orsino and Olivia are both so self-obsessed it is ridiculous! Which left me thinking it is no wonder Toby and Andrew go around drinking and causing havoc, because there’s a complete absence of any figures of control and maturity in this play. Orsino and Olivia are behaving like children and frankly never stop doing so.

The play even lends itself to a more chaotic presentation structurally. The scenes chop and change between sets of characters very rapidly – especially in the first half. A challenge for staging and a challenge for maintaining any sense of coherency. But maybe that’s the point? Maybe Shakespeare is encouraging us to embrace the chaos and the madness of Illyria. Those in power have stopped governing and the place is descending into chaos.

As usual, the only person that seems to have any sense is the fool, Feste. But (also as usual) his comedy doesn’t translate very well to a modern audience. Which is a bit of a problem with this play generally actually. I feel the whole set up of Olivia shutting herself away and Orsino sending Viola to woo for him, not to mention the puritanical outlook of Malvolio, all feels quite archaic. Yes, it is still funny, but it isn’t as relatable as some of Shakespeare’s other comedies.

Having read Comedy Of Errors for the first time earlier this year too, I can’t help feeling like the Viola/Sebastian twin set-up is a bit of a poor version of what Shakespeare did to much greater effect in Comedy Of Errors. There, the whole twin set up is the story, and the mistaken identities and confusions fill the play. Where here, they feel like a done gag, tagged on the end of romantic comedy. That’s not to say, it isn’t funny – it absolutely is. It just doesn’t seem as pure as what he did in Comedy Of Errors.

This all sounds very critical and, in some ways, I suppose it is. But that doesn’t mean I didn’t like the play and wouldn’t want to stage it myself. In fact, in writing this I’m drawn to it more. A version that embraced the chaos and the absurdity would certainly interest me. I’d be less interested in a version that took itself too seriously.


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