Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Shakespeare the survivor

I went and saw the movie version of Twelfth Night a couple of weeks ago - it's a recording of the 2017 production at the National Theatre in London. The movie version is bit of an oddity: there's a 20-minute interval around the two-hour mark, when nothing appears on the screen except a counting down clock; we can still hear the sound of the audience in the real theatre. The last time I saw a similar production - it was the Royal Shakespeare Company's production of Love's Labour's Lost - they went backstage during the interval as well as showing how the set had been constructed and a number of other interesting facts.

This version gave us some of that at the beginning, but it gave us more: a run-down on the fact that the director and some of the cast saw this play as timely because of its 'gender fluidity'. Thus we were regaled with little speeches about the way Shakespeare was so ahead of his time in playing around with gender (boys becoming girls becoming boys and so on), and watched a queer activist talk about how the audience would probably find the play bringing out more of their unannounced gay side. (My paraphrase.) All this unnecessary stuff almost turned me off staying for the play.

Of course Twelfth Night is about boys pretending to be girls pretending to be boys. Shakespeare is playing with all this, not turning the play into some ideological statement. But this version of the play takes everything as far as it's possible to go: thus Orsino kisses his 'boy' (who's actually a girl); any of Antonio's speeches in which the word 'love' occurs are given huge emphasis, as though Antonio was madly in love with Sebastian; even Sir Toby Belch and Sir Andrew Aguecheek seem to do some odd touching up at one point. And Malvolio, Feste and Fabian are all played by women. This sort of works with Feste and Fabian, but Malvolio is turned into a Puritan lesbian, Malvolia, and, when she comes out, as it were, after receiving the famous fake letter, she's gone into cabaret, it seems. And talking of cabaret, at the Elephant Inn, a possibly transvestite singer is the entertainment (singing, curiously, a version of Hamlet's To be or not to be speech).

Does anything of this add to the play? (Does any of the crotch-grabbing or male genital-focusing add anything either? Thankfully, this is mostly in the first few scenes, and lessens after that.) I'm not convinced that it does. It does give Tamsin Greig the opportunity to play the plum role of Malvolio/a and to play it so utterly and thoroughly that she quickly upstages the rest of the cast. Viola, the main character, is reduced considerably in status as a result. Greig is wonderful in the part, hilarious, crazy, absurd, taking every word of the script and giving it all possible meaning, and even jumping into an actual fountain and getting herself thoroughly soaked at one point. But note that it's the comedy that shines through here, not the fact that it's a woman playing the role.

Aside from all this, Toby Belch isn't fat, and Aguecheek isn't thin. In fact, Belch is presented as a thoroughly unpleasant character. It's always hard to see him as humorous: he's selfish, vile, generally drunk, and nasty to his friends. Why does Maria decide to marry him? Who knows? She's a lot sharper than he is. Maybe the problem is that Maria is never played as unpleasant; she's always been a warm character in any version I've seen. What if she and Belch were cast as the Thenardiers of this particular court? That might make more sense in regard to what they do to Malvolio/a.

Daniel Rigby plays Aguecheek as wonderfully daft, doing lots of ridiculous gymnastics, enjoying himself and his lines, and generally coming across as a much warmer Aguecheek than usual. He doesn't deserve the Belch of this production - Tim McMullan - who's almost entirely venal. Not the person you want to get on the wrong side of. It's not surprising that he's given the brush-off by Aguecheek at the end.

Phoebe Fox is an excellent and lively Olivia: she swings from grief to anger to fire to passion to humour and warmth and back again with ease, and makes a character we can warm to.

Another star of the show, it might said, is the set: a huge staircase that's on some kind of turntable, and presents itself variously as the ship in the storm, a place for the musicians to loll about on, and the wall of a street. When it splits open we can be in Olivia's court, or Orsino's; we can be in the garden with a working fountain or a patio with a pool (real water in it as well). Sometimes it takes off at the end of a scene and leaves the characters behind, or sweeps them up somehow. It's a wonderful concept, and works marvellously.

The musicians are another feature of this production. At least two of them play more than one instrument, and they're an integral part of what's going on, not just filler between scenes.

So there was a great deal to enjoy here. The ideology, however, just seemed to get in the way, for me. I understand Shakespeare has been regarded for centuries as a playwright you can do what you will with (pun intended), and over the decades we've had all sorts of theories and viewpoints added into the mix of his plays. Somehow he survives it all. Thankfully.

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