Let’s Talk Twelfth Night

Since we’re in that after-Christmas lull, let’s talk about Twelfth Night. I have a book on Twelfth Night queued up for review, I’ll see if I can get that posted tonight.
Until then, the floor is open. Do Twelfth Night productions ever have anything to do with Christmas? If not, do we have any idea where the name comes from?
What are your thoughts on this one compared to, say, the other popular cross-dressing comedy As You Like It? Is this one light and fluffy, or dark and twisty?

7 thoughts on “Let’s Talk Twelfth Night

  1. I saw a really excellent production of Twelfth Night (I think it was at Shakespeare and Co.) in which the dark, twisty side was played down greatly by having Malvolio clearly understand all along that he was not going to be left in the dungeon, that he would be found not to be crazy and let out. It made the joke funnier and seem less cruel. Instead of playing it cringing/whining as it usually is, he played it pleading/exasperated. I thought it worked much better and was much more consonant with the play as a whole. Even when he runs off the stage at the end vowing revenge, it sounds less menacing. And Orsino's placating words following him offstage seem less out of place.
    Orsino's twist of cruelty toward the end is more bearabale in this context because (1) it is borne so bravely by Viola and (2) it is so brief.
    –Carl

  2. Last year, Trinity Rep in Providence did a TN set at Christmas in a Victorian gentleman's club, though besides a tree on stage and a few decorations, did not really capture a Christmas feel. The curtain call had the entire cast singing some contemporary Christmas song, which struck me, and many others, as being incongruous with the whole production.

  3. The success of any production of TN depends on the skills of the actors doing it. That probably sounds like a statement that should be followed by a loud "Du-uh!" but you'd be surprised how often a particular group tries the absolute wrong approach for its talents. When they do, the play can descend into too much broad humor at the expense of the language, or noirish melancholy at the expense of the humor.

    I enjoy the Trevor Nunn film version, which to me, nicely treads the line between humor and sadness. Of course, Nunn had some fine actors, a perfect setting, and beautiful music to help him achieve that delicate mix.

    Even in a production by a top-notch professional company, however, like last year's at Trinity, the difference among actors can be so vast that only a few of them can walk that thin line. Directorial choices can ruin things, too.

    Changing Feste from a clown to one of the workers at Olivia's estate, for instance, deprives him of the power his independence grants him. Cutting his speech about all of us being fools because all of us are "patched" reduces him eevn further.

    A bellowing, constantly angry Orsino neglects the character's sensitive side, which in other productions, is overdone. Maybe some of these choices are made because the actors can't handle the subtleties, or because the director sees the story as cartoonish.

    Malvolio is a nightmare, isn't he?
    In some respects, he's only doing what any considerate, mature person would do when confronted by the drunken goings-on of Toby and the gang. He's Captain Buzzkill, to be sure, but does his snobbery and ego deserve torture at Toby's hands?

    And here are those frightening final words of his. I love the word "pack" in that line: it's Malvolio seeing himself as an older or wounded prey animal, and all the others, as ravening wolves.

    His sin is that he cannot laugh at himself…and perhaps that's too much to ask in such a charged moment. However, if the other actors can show that their characters are willing to forgive and forget Mal's nastier moments, and want him back (Feste excepted, perhaps), and he still rejects them and seeks revenge… well, maybe then the audience can live with the raucous laughter that might follow Mal's exit.

    Sorry to ramble, but Carl is so right about the ending. Orsino is, like virtually evryone else in this play, at he mercy of love, and Love makes us nuts! I never think Orsino means to kill Cesario. he's just overwrought, and I think Cesario/Viola knows it.

    In that Trinity version, Orsino, who's been yeling throughout the whole play anyway, kicks it up a notch in that scene and takes out a gun, which he then holds a few inches from Cesario's forehead. Sorry, but that pushed the suspension of disbelief overboard. Leontes' sudden mood change is ina ppropriate here. Orsino's just not that kind of guy.

  4. The success of any production of TN depends on the skills of the actors doing it. That probably sounds like a statement that should be followed by a loud "Du-uh!" but you'd be surprised how often a particular group tries the absolute wrong approach for its talents. When they do, the play can descend into too much broad humor at the expense of the language, or noirish melancholy at the expense of the humor.

    I enjoy the Trevor Nunn film version, which to me, nicely treads the line between humor and sadness. Of course, Nunn had some fine actors, a perfect setting, and beautiful music to help him achieve that delicate mix.

    Even in a production by a top-notch professional company, however, like last year's at Trinity, the difference among actors can be so vast that only a few of them can walk that thin line. Directorial choices can ruin things, too.

    Changing Feste from a clown to one of the workers at Olivia's estate, for instance, deprives him of the power his independence grants him. Cutting his speech about all of us being fools because all of us are "patched" reduces him eevn further.

    A bellowing, constantly angry Orsino neglects the character's sensitive side, which in other productions, is overdone. Maybe some of these choices are made because the actors can't handle the subtleties, or because the director sees the story as cartoonish.

    Malvolio is a nightmare, isn't he?
    In some respects, he's only doing what any considerate, mature person would do when confronted by the drunken goings-on of Toby and the gang. He's Captain Buzzkill, to be sure, but does his snobbery and ego deserve torture at Toby's hands?

    And here are those frightening final words of his. I love the word "pack" in that line: it's Malvolio seeing himself as an older or wounded prey animal, and all the others, as ravening wolves.

    His sin is that he cannot laugh at himself…and perhaps that's too much to ask in such a charged moment. However, if the other actors can show that their characters are willing to forgive and forget Mal's nastier moments, and want him back (Feste excepted, perhaps), and he still rejects them and seeks revenge… well, maybe then the audience can live with the raucous laughter that might follow Mal's exit.

    Sorry to ramble, but Carl is so right about the ending. Orsino is, like virtually evryone else in this play, at he mercy of love, and Love makes us nuts! I never think Orsino means to kill Cesario. he's just overwrought, and I think Cesario/Viola knows it.

    In that Trinity version, Orsino, who's been yeling throughout the whole play anyway, kicks it up a notch in that scene and takes out a gun, which he then holds a few inches from Cesario's forehead. Sorry, but that pushed the suspension of disbelief overboard. Leontes' sudden mood change is ina ppropriate here. Orsino's just not that kind of guy.

  5. I really, really like Twelfth Night. It was the play I was most disappointed not to see represented in the Masterpuppet Theatre set I got for Christmas. 🙂

    I hold that Twelfth Night is one of a few plays that simply do not have a bad role. I don't count Valentine and Curio, because any production with doubling with also give those actors other roles that are more fun, like Antonio or Fabian.

    Up until recently, Malvolio was my favorite role I'd ever played (he was displaced by Octavius Caesar). He's essentially a straight man to an entire country of fools. The irony, of course, is that his utter stick-in-the-mud-ness and denial of joy, coupled with his delusions of grandeur, makes him just as foolish as everyone else. The scene of him locked in a dark room but obstinately denying his insanity is really his role in the entire play. Everyone in Illyria is mad in some way, Malvolio's madness is partly in thinking himself sane.

    Is Malvolio's fate justified? Up to the yellow stockings, absolutely, since the entire scam runs on his utter blindness and arrogance. The dark room? It all hinges on how nasty Malvolio was to Feste earlier, and how cruel Feste is portrayed in that scene. It can really go either way, depending on the director. Malvolio's exit, too, can either seem like a hissy-fit or a genuinely frightening vow of vengeance.

  6. Hi, there! Haven't commented in an eon.
    In the Anglican and Catholic churches, Christmas season begins December 25 and continues for 12 days – the twelfth day is Epiphany, when the Three Wise Men visited the baby Jesus. It became a night of celebration and feasting, and often turning the established order upside down. The Boar's Head Feast is traditionally during this season. It's a wonderful release from all the preparation and intensity of the Christmas celebration (says this former choir member who organized the BHF at my church).

    You can see that Shakespeare's Twelfth Night fits right in with rowdiness, and mocking the establishment. The Atlanta Shakespeare Tavern is doing Twelfth Night this January — appropriate!

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