Present mirth hath present laughter

As part of my A level English course, I have to study Twelfth Night. It’s a good play, not Rattle Arrow’s (as my English teacher calls him – criiinggee) best, but good all the same. Maybe that’s because I have a tragic streak in me which makes me prefer the deep dark tragedies. But it’s a good play – principally because it includes two of my favourite words, cockatrice, a word with which, as some of you know, I have a passionate history, and hob-nob. Hob-nob. Brilliant word, and my favourite biscuit (bit of trivia there…!). Over half term, I went to see the first of the previews of Twelfth Night. Here are my thoughts… PS Look out for a second review of Twelfth Night (to compare and contrast) in early June, when I will have been to see it at the Globe. PPS Thank you to my parents and godmother for taking me out to the theatre twice, a very special treat xx

“Vibrant,” “weird,” “fun,” and “mind-blowing” are all quotes that I gathered about this production, when I asked people to sum it up in one word. But it is possible that no other quote quite sums up Simon Godwin’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night than Feste’s own words, “present mirth hath present laughter.” Through an all too recognisable 21st Century lens, Godwin makes Twelfth Night’s messages of gender liminality, friendship, laughter, love, grief and pain speak clearer to us than ever before. It is striking that, even 414 years after Twelfth Night was written, the play can so easily find its feet in a modern world; its joy and pain remain deeply affecting.

In the preview stage of the production, I felt privileged to be able to attend one of the first live performances at the National Theatre. It seemed to me that the production at that time was still somewhat like a flower on the cusp of blooming to its full splendour. Teething faults with staging, costumes and props, and an Antonio [Adam Best] who dropped his Scottish accent half way through, whilst arguably at times adding to the humour of the play, did undermine the serious undertone to Twelfth Night that has given it its ‘bittersweet’ label. Therefore, despite an ingenious triangular flight of steps (perhaps symbolising the love triangle at the heart of the play, and the steps of patriarchal hierarchy that were an underlying presence even in times of misrule) opening to reveal every set required, from a ship in a storm, to streets, atria, pools, gardens, a chapel, a gay nightclub and a front door, and many noteworthy performances, it was the ruffed stage manager who held a wall up for a considerable part of the play whilst spinning round with the revolving stage who became a favourite character of those in the audience.

Yet arguably such is the joy of live performance, and I have no doubt that the production will only go from strength to strength in the coming weeks. And undoubtedly, it is a production that merits attention. Godwin has clearly chosen to highlight gender as a principal driving factor in the comedy, and tragedy, of this adaptation. One might even argue that it was the notion of gender that was the binding factor that made this fair cruelty of a play work successfully. Yet it was interesting to note that, in the programme, Tiffany Stern goes as far as to say that this highlighting of gender suggests that ‘gender and sex themselves are performances and that both are as much social constructs as physical ones.’ In a modern setting, the problem of gender and sexuality is still a constant question, and I wonder whether any member of the audience did not come out of the performance questioning what it means to be female, male, homosexual, heterosexual or bisexual. Are these just social constructs? Whatever your personal opinion, it is clear that, for this production, the casting of a Malvolia [Tamsin Grieg], female Feste [Doon Mackichan] and Fabia [Imogen Doel] were extremely important, dramatically increasing the number of women on the stage, thus allowing for an increased sense of homoeroticism, seemingly somewhere present in every scene.

It was interesting to note the portrayal of the relationship between Sir Toby [Tim McMullun] and Sir Andrew [Daniel Rigby] which Godwin had also underpinned with Andrew’s homosexual desires for Toby, unparalleled in either Trevor Nunn’s film (1996), or that of the Globe production (2012). It would not be an overstatement to say that the homoeroticism between Toby and Andrew was far more pronounced than that between Orsino [Oliver Chris] and Cesario [Tamara Lawrance]. Indeed, dressed head to toe in pink, with a man-bun, and a physical performance littered with jumps, hops and skips, from his first entrance Sir Andrew fitted straight into the modern stereotype of homosexual men. With ‘camped-up’ lines such as ‘I’d beat [her] like a dog’ and a final flick of the hair following Toby’s harsh words to such a ‘gull,’ the audience was left with the image of Andrew as an embodiment of modern homosexuality.

The Malvolia sub-plot, as in many interpretations, gradually became the main plot of the story. With an audience full of aging Archers fans, the casting of Debbie, Grieg, as Malvolia inevitably led to a sympathetic audience. Indeed, words such as “I didn’t expect the end to be so sad” filled the babbling gossip of the air following the performance. However, Grieg’s portrayal of Malvolia was not originally so ‘sad,’ in fact being reminiscent of a stereotypical Victorian schoolmaster, seen as simply a sanctions master and presence malum volens.

It was at the end of the first half of the play, with Malvolia splashing around in a fountain that didn’t quite squirt water (yet), that the theme of appearance vs reality in Twelfth Night found its incarnation. The gulling was so successful that the second half saw Malvolia in a costume that epitomised her fall, a modernised interpretation of yellow stockings and cross gartered to say the least, with a touch of Commedia dell’Arte for maximum effect. However, arguably what was most striking was the Malvolia’s final line ‘I’ll be revenged on the whole pack of you,’ which saw Grieg remove the wig that she had worn the whole play, both as the Puritanical and the promiscuous Malvolia. Her final gesture to the characters, therefore, was that throughout the whole play she had been playing a role; her true personality was not to be found in either persona she had portrayed. This undeniably left the question of what constitutes a true identity lingering in the audience’s mind.

Furthermore, it was clear that beneath the hilarity and pain, a lot of thought had gone into the relationship between casting and costumes. For example, Viola and Sebastian [Daniel Ezra] were played by two African-American actors, which added to the modern stance of the play, challenging stereotypical intra-race and inter-sex relationships. The actors wore simple white shirts and black trousers, meaning that their appearance was androgynous, to the extent that the final scene saw Olivia embracing Viola and Orsino likewise embracing Sebastian, once again heightening homosexual themes of the play. As mentioned before, costume also played a key role in the character of Malvolia whose black garments were always in direct contrast with the pink, purple and green of Andrew, Toby and Feste respectively, emphasising their conflicting characters. The change from complete black to complete yellow clearly marked the gulling as a key shift in the character of Malvolia. Yet, the touch of a Pierrot Commedia dell’Arte cape, though flounced about (albeit inside out – the Velcro clearly wasn’t working) by the gulled Malvolia, demonstrated that she was little more than a sad clown, a fool, the butt of the joke. A similar change from black to bright colour was also used in the costume of Olivia, symbolising her progression from the darkness of death to the light of love.

As the play unravelled, with a surprise at every corner – did anyone else expect to see Toby in a mankini? – it was the question of how Godwin would choose to end the play that was most pressing in my mind. Would the rain raineth? Well, as mentioned, the staging opened out, and so the end saw the revolving stage (and yes, the ruffed stage manager with it) split into thirds. Whilst Feste stood and sang, each time a third faced the front, we saw a new scene: Antonio being set free, Andrew leaving with a teddy bear that had been previously destined for Olivia (not a dry eye in the house, I can assure you), the marriage of Olivia and Sebastian and subsequently that of Orsino and Viola, with an appearance from Toby and Maria noticeably absent. And as the staging came together once more to form the flight of stairs, it began to rain. And there was Malvolia, still dressed in her gulled clothing, slowly ascending the stairs to the light, whereupon she reached up, almost offering herself to God to be redeemed, to be forgiven, to be loved. Did Malvolia reach her God? Well, the lights went out and the show was over.

So perhaps you never thought that Shakespeare could be mixed with gay clubs, teddy bears, toilet roll, and swimming pools. Perhaps you can’t seem to picture a transvestite singing Hamlet’s famous ‘To be or not to be speech’ in an operatic aria. But somehow, Godwin makes it work, and if you look a little closer, you might understand why. The production was certainly played ‘for the laughs,’ but occasional glimpses of despair sharply pierced the hilarity, to the extent that on leaving the theatre it was a cloud of melancholy that hung over a dispersing audience, and not one of comedy. And despite my stomach’s memories of aches of laughter, for me the play ended with a perennial final note of warning – ‘present mirth hath present laughter,’ the opportunity was left for each to read into that what you will.

I would highly recommend going to see Twelfth Night at the National Theatre if you are able to (but probably don’t take Grandma…). https://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/shows/twelfth-night

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