Twelfth Night Review

You can sometimes take authenticity and literalism too far in the re-enactment of Shakespearean drama, but there are times when it is indispensible. The Globe theatre does tend to hold to traditional methods, but they don't usually go quite as far as to follow the Elizabethan tradition of having young men play all the female roles. In the case of Twelfth Night, where questions of the identity and the nature of men and women are uppermost, it can be an essential component of the play. It can also add to the humour of the situations, since the ability to laugh at oneself and one's situation is very much a part of the make-up and nature of man and at the heart of Shakespeare's comedies.

With this in mind, Twelfth Night, or What You Will (the title reflecting it being written for the Christmas holiday season with its traditions of festive revelry and dressing up) is more than just a cross-dressing farce and actually one of Shakespeare's more sophisticated comedies. Much of that sophistication lies, needless to say, in the play on words, but it's presented in a way where words are indeed a tool of expression of one's essential nature. "If music be the food of love, play on" is the famous line delivered at the start of this play and the human heart is not immune either to the sweet sound of words. Even while in mourning for the loss of her father and brother, brooking no distraction and continually rejecting the amorous approaches of Duke Orsino, the Countess Olivia can nonetheless be swayed by the right magical combination of words and the right messenger.

The first chink in Olivia's armour is when she accepts the company of Feste, a fool, admiring not just the cleverness of his wordplay, but recognising the wisdom of his observations on drunks, fools and madmen, which seems to be the nature of the men that Olivia has to deal with. She also finds something different about the young man, Cesario, who has come to make yet another plea on behalf of Orsino. Despite being told in nautical terms to sling his hook, Cesario persists and she allows the young man to speak. What manner of man is this whose words sound so sweet and appealing? Who claims that what he has to say "is to your ears divinity, to any other profanity", where words have subjective (magical) meaning if they fall on ears that are willing to listen and worthy of accepting their meaning.

The reason, of course, is that Cesario is no manner of man at all, but actually a woman, Viola, a young woman who has been washed up on the shores of Illyria in a shipwreck that she believes has claimed the life of her brother Sebastian - a twin, just to add to the grand confusion that develops later when it is revealed that he is, of course, still alive. Cesario's words then perhaps have force in their ambiguity, not just because they are delivered by a young woman dressed as a man (acted by a man pretending to be a woman dressed as a man for extra emphasis and ambiguity), but because Viola is herself in love with Count Orsino, with all the complications that come with her sense of duty towards him and her inability to express those feelings in any conventional fashion. As is observed later in yet another witty exchange between Cesario and Feste, words are indeed "very rascals" throughout Twelfth Night and "wanton", "since bonds disgraced them".

It's essential then that these wanton words are delivered by a rich assortment of drunks, fools and madmen (or by those in love, which is much the same thing) who can reveal and indeed revel in the ambiguity of these situations and the humour that arises from them. Here in the Globe's outstanding 2012 production, none do that better than the marvellous Mark Rylance who plays Olivia. There's no getting away from the fact that, for all her character is the centre of attention in the drama, the source and inspiration to much of the melancholy, the confusion and the adoration that determines the nature and manner of the other characters in the drama, it is also essential that she be played by a man, heightening the absurdity and the ambiguity of these situations. Rylance knows Olivia is not a Juliet or indeed a Beatrice, but that this is a situation where love does make one do foolish things at the same time as it elevates us out of our foolishness. The absurdity of his almost pantomime Countess however in no way betrays the finer qualities that lie within her personality.

Rylance has some competition however from several other well-known character and comedy actors in roles that they imbue with life and personality, particularly Roger Lloyd Pack as the dim and cowardly knight Sir Andrew Aguecheek (as blankly adrift to the subtleties and meaning of all the clever wordplay as his 'Only Fools and Horses' character Trigger would be), and from Stephen Fry as the bumptuous and proud Malvolio, who you nonetheless come to sympathise with despite his deserved humiliation (done inevitably through the twisting of words). As the agent of his downfall, Paul Chahidi's Maria is also an absolute delight, innocent in expression yet devilish in intent and sharp in timing and delivery. Twelfth Night is primarily a comedy, and this production recognises that and gets the tone exactly right in those essential areas.

The "straighter" roles of Count Orsino and Cesario are perhaps less imaginatively characterised and directed here. There is some effort made to play up the manly love of Orsino for the curiously attractive young man in his service, but it comes across as a little awkward and forced, but that's to take nothing away from the challenges of Johnny Flynn's cross-cross-dressing role of Viola and Cesario. The direction by Tim Carroll is by and large however excellent, less frantically paced than most Globe productions, allowing the sophisticated comedy to be drawn out well, with appropriate sight gags and comic touches where required and without having to resort to slapstick. Sir Toby Belch seems to always have a hidden bottle to hand, no matter how often Mary confiscates them from him, and as for an interpretation of what is a "tree-box", where the conspirators of Malvolio's downfall hide, well, it's a fine example of how well the Globe manage with minimal props but pull out the best when necessary.

Twelfth Night is released on DVD by Opus Arte. The DVD is dual-layer, region-free and encoded in NTSC format for international compatibility.

Recent Globe productions have been filmed in HD and have found their way onto Blu-ray discs, but curiously not the current batch that includes Twelfth Night, Henry V and The Taming of the Shrew, which have been released on DVD only. The video quality on this release of this release of Twelfth Night is reasonably good in its Standard Definition transfer and an improvement over the somewhat gritty The Taming of the Shrew DVD release. In close-up, detail is relatively good, but the limitations of the transfer are nonetheless more evident in the wider shots of the stage, where there is inevitably less sharpness and detail. The lower-resolution NTSC format probably doesn't help matters, but the quality is reasonably good or at least as good as it needs to be.

The audio tracks are plain Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo and Dolby Digital 5.1 surround. The soundtracks are probably more vital than high image quality in these performances, and thankfully the recording of the live performance is very good. All of the dialogue is well enunciated and cleanly delivered which helps matters, but the actual recording and the performance itself is clear enough to follow without the need for subtitles. Happily however, should you want to follow the wonderful text of the drama, optional white subtitles are available in English as well as in German. Other than a Cast Gallery there are no extra features on the disc, but there is an essay and an outline synopsis included in the booklet that comes with the DVD.

There's not a woman on the stage of the Globe's 2012 production of Twelfth Night, but it's less though a misguided need to follow Elizabethan stage tradition as in recognition that its the best means of covering the complex nature of relationships between men and women in the drama as well as the foolish behaviour that goes on between them. Somehow, through the magic of Shakespeare, that can only be captured as well as this when the women are all men in frocks. It helps however if you have a strong cast that can discern the levels of meaning in the words and the ambiguity in their nature and in the situations between them, and with Mark Rylance, Stephen Fry, Roger Lloyd Pack and Paul Chahidi in some key roles, you're not going to find a much better production of Twelfth Night than this.

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