On Thursday, September 18, at 7 PM, and Wednesday, September 24 at 2PM, Angelika Pop-Up at Union Market, 550 Penn Street NE, will present the filmed version of the Globe Theatre’s acclaimed 2012 production of Twelfth Night, which had an extended run on Broadway last year. I took a look at the film – and by extension the production – and here’s what I saw.
Romantic love for Shakespeare was always a sort of affliction of bliss, a magical condition which falls upon its prey without invitation or warning, and burrows in unrelentingly. Thus Romeo falls hard for Juliet literally minutes after declaiming his love for Rosalind; Orlando, in As You Like It, falls deeply in love with (a different) Rosalind, but somehow does not recognize her when she disguises herself as a male; and, in Midsummer Night’s Dream, a drop or two of Puck’s love juice changes Lysander’s love for Hermia into love for Helena, makes Demetrius, who has hitherto scorned Helena, also fall in love with the bewildered woman, and makes Titania, queen of the fairies, fall in love with a man who has the head of an ass.
Accordingly, in a crucial moment toward the end of the Globe Theatre’s production of Twelfth Night, when Duke Orsino (Liam Brennan), having discovered – to his delight – that his serving-boy Cesario is in fact the young woman Viola, he steps forward and says “Give me thy hand/Let me see thee in thy woman’s weeds”. He grasps a hand – but it is not Viola’s. Instead, it belongs to her brother Sebastian (Samuel Barnett), who seems almost identical to his sister in her masculine attire. Orsini begins to declaim his love, recognizes his error, slows down, releases Sebastian – and plows ahead all over again with Viola, using precisely the same approach and the same language. The Globe gets this about Shakespeare, generally thought of as our greatest love poet: he was a cynic, to whom the objects of love were fungible.
Of course, the joke is on us, too, since the actor playing Viola is also a man – the excellent Johnny Flynn – as are all the actors in this production, which seeks to replicate the style with which the King’s Men might have put on the production, in the original Globe. I’ve railed against cross-gender casting before and will do so again briefly here: Mark Rylance, for example, is a brilliant actor and, here, an interesting Olivia, but I can think of a dozen female actors who could play the role better (because they have a head start) and I bet you can too. I can see no advantage to maintain old traditions where the passage of time has given us better ones, and one of the greatest improvements in theater since Shakespeare’s time has been the introduction of female actors in women’s roles. We do not still go to outdoor privies at the theater, as we did in Shakespeare’s time, and I cannot see why we need to see male actors in women’s roles.
But that’s the choice the Globe has made, so let’s move on. Twelfth Night is really two separate shows, a romance and a dark comedy. In the romance, Viola and Sebastian are aboard a shipwreck; both are tossed overboard and, struggling to shore, each believes the other dead. Viola, hoping to find employment, disguises herself as a boy, calls herself “Cesario” and soon finds herself engaged as a servant to Duke Orsini. Orsini pants after Olivia, the daughter of a deceased Count, who, ostensibly in mourning for her brother, is not receiving gentlemen callers. He commissions Cesario to press his suit, which Viola does, although she is rapidly falling in love with her employer. Olivia tells Cesario that she has no interest in Orsini – but it is apparent that she does have a fierce appetite for a little Cesario, which she feeds with various clumsy and obvious stratagems.
The dark comedy involves Olivia’s bibulous uncle, Sir Toby Belch (Colin Hurley), his dimwitted sidekick Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Roger Lloyd Pack), her scheming maid Maria (Paul Chahidi), her fool Feste (Peter Hamilton Dyer), who, like all of Shakespeare’s best fools, is profoundly depressing, and their victim, the massively self-important Malvolio (Stephen Fry). They are going to play a trick on Malvolio. If you don’t know what it is, I’m not going to tell you.
The overall effect of the Globe’s approach has been to make the romance’s dilemmas much more sympathetic. Rylance’s Olivia is not young, bewitching and slightly mad, as she’s usually played. This Olivia is an older woman, suddenly besotted with what she takes to be a comely young man. She simpers, she loses track of herself, she is embarrassed and delighted. She and “Cesario” are a world apart in age or class (and united in gender, though she doesn’t know that) but it does not matter to her. She is gobsmacked, as Titania was gobsmacked by her donkey-headed friend.
Brennan’s Orsini also appears to be a man of late middle years, and so his quest after Olivia seems less like the effort of a young aristocrat to marry well and found a line than of a man who seeks to find companionship in his declining years. Of course, once he finally understands that Olivia is unavailable – and that Viola is actually a young woman – he switches alliances easily, but that’s how Shakespeare saw love. (Throughout, Brennan has Orsini giving “Cesario” the eye – and then drawing back and putting on a “what-were-you-thinking?” face.)
The Globe also takes a fresh approach to the dark comedy, and the unexpected result is that it makes Malvolio much more sympathetic. Hurley’s Sir Toby is not a charming boozehound – a poor man’s Falstaff – but a severely damaged alcoholic. His face is marred with the burst veins on the nose and under the eyes which usually presage liver trouble, and he has a practice of stashing booze throughout the house so that he can drink when his bottle has been taken from him – funny when we first see it, but a clear sign that the disease has the upper hand, and might deliver the death blow at any time.
Drink doesn’t make Sir Toby funny, it makes him mean, and in that meanness we can see the whole of his relationship with the vacuous Sir Andrew laid bare. Sir Andrew is not only a nincompoop but a coward as well. (As per the tradition in Shakespeare’s time, the men playing women’s roles wear whiteface; amusingly Pack, playing Aguecheek, wears whiteface as well.) Sir Toby has given him the hopeless task of winning Olivia’s love, perhaps so that Sir Toby can, through Aguecheek, control her fortune. When it becomes obvious that Sir Andrew will never succeed, Toby turns on him, tricking him into a fight with Cesario and then, late in the play, telling him what he really thinks of him.
One of the great pleasures of this production is watching Pack play Aguecheek. Sir Andrew is a sweet role that any good actor can exploit for laughs, but Pack – who played, I must tell you, Barty Couch in “Harry Potter and the Goblets of Fire” – manages to make the character shockingly funny. Sir Andrew is a numbskull who believes himself to be a genius, but Pack manages to surround all of his pronouncements with a nimbus of doubt, as though he is vaguely aware of how wrong this is, but doesn’t know how to make it right. “What is pourquoi?” he asks, having been introduced as an acclaimed linguist a few moments ago. It is the French word for “why”, but to Aguecheek it might have been a particular variety of fish. Later he laughs hesitantly at what he hopes is a joke. He is hopeless and helpless, and he soldiers on.
On the other hand, Fry gives us a Malvolio who is surprisingly sober and gentle. Fry is a big guy, and it would have been easy to make him threatening and – well, malevolent, but his Malvolio is a gentleman. His Achilles heel is arrogance and self-regard, but frankly it would be difficult not to be arrogant around such people as Sir Andrew and Sir Toby. Malvolio, prim and fastidious, was meant to represent the undercurrent of Calvinism which was making British society uncomfortable, but here his punishment seems all out of proportion to his crimes. When he cries “I’ll revenge the lot of you” at the end, I’m betting you hope he does. (He does, but not until the revolution of 1648).
Malvolio is arrogant, but his arrogance is no match for Dyer’s Feste. Contempt radiates from Dyer’s piercing eyes; he never smiles; and he talks so fast it sounds like he’s playing three-card-monte with people’s minds. He insults Olivia; he leads Toby and Aguecheek into trouble; and when Malvolio is imprisoned he pretends – Dyer transforms himself for this – to be the curate. Throughout, Dyer is a malevolent sprite, and a marvelous one as well.
Shakespeare’s Globe performance
Playing nationally and at
Angelika Pop-Up at Union Market
550 Penn Street NE, Unit E
Washington, DC 20002
3 hours, 10 minutes with 1 intermission
Sept 18 at 7pm, Sept 24 at 2pm
One of the great challenges to modern productions of Twelfth Night is finding actors to play Viola and Sebastian who look enough like each other that it is plausible that they be mistaken for one another (they eventually appear on stage together). This is one problem which one-sex casting can solve. Barnett is got up in whiteface just like the actors playing women; when he stands next to Flynn it really is hard to tell them apart except that, inexplicably, Cesario is wearing lipstick.
This show was filmed in the Globe Theatre and the camera periodically pans through the audience. There is a great deal of music in Twelfth Night and once in a while we see the musicians, in a box above the stage. Normally one might find this a little distracting but what the hey, it’s the Globe.
This version of Twelfth Night might challenge your expectations and expand your concept of what is possible in Shakespeare. That’s not a bad thing. It is clever, honest, authentic, touching, and, at times, deeply and profoundly funny. Love may be magical in Shakespeare, but in this production, every other human emotion is earned, and so is our attention.
Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare . Director:Tim Carroll . Designer: Jenny Tiramani . Composer: Claire van Kampen . Cast: Samuel Barnett, Liam Brennan, Paul Chahidi, John Paul Connolly, Ian Drysdale, Johnny Flynn, Stephen Fry, James Garnon, Peter Hamilton Dyer, Colin Hurley, Roger Lloyd Pack, Mark Rylance, Jethro Skinner and Ben Thompson . Produced by Globe On Screen . Reviewed by Tim Treanor.