Russ Hunt's Reviews

Twelfth Night; or, What You Will
by William Shakespeare

UNB Theatre /English 2170
April 2003

Producing Shakespeare, whether professionally or among and for undergraduates, is in large part a matter of bringing an audience to an entirely alien and incomprehensible space and helping them recognize it as familiar and perfectly sensible. When it works -- and especially when it works in an educational context -- it can be a miraculous sort of learning experience, and one that's worth any amount of risk.

The problems of achieving that with undergraduate actors and for a primarily undergraduate audience are, legendarily, a daunting challenge. It's not enough to get your cast to a point where the alien universe becomes their own comfortable world, it's also required that you then find a way to make that so clear that an audience unused to even the language, much less the theatrical conventions and the social assumptions, can find the funny laughable, the surprising appropriately unexpected, and the customs normal. With a play like Twelfth Night, the challenge is especially strong. It's not just, or even mainly, the unlikelihood of the plot (we do get used to improbabilities like identical twins being shipwrecked, women perfectly disguised as men, sudden attacks of lovelorn despondency and irresistible love, etc.). It's things like how the play wants us to respond to the pathetic gulled Malvolio, locked away in a dark cell as mad, or the lovesick Olivia, lusting after the messenger who's actually a woman in disguise, and her perfect and unquestioning satisfaction when she discovers that Viola's brother Sebastian is eminently and immediately available.

The tack taken by Len Falkenstein and his English 2170 class will not be a surprise to those who've been following the development of theatre on campus in recent years. Memorial Hall is once again taken up by the scruff of the neck and shaken into a new configuration, one that allows for the immediate interaction of audience, actor and audience that's so important for Shakespeare (we watch each other watching the actors watching each other). As they've done a number of times now, Falkenstein and designer Mike Johnson create an acting space that tumbles down from the stage proper, splits the audience, and rises to a secondary focus in front of the backdoor. To create the fantastical kingdom of Illyria, there's a gauzy, internally lit pavilion up there on stage, where the mysterious and alluring Olivia lurks; down a few steps there's the main playing area, a raised oval paved in aging green tiles; then a remarkable little bridge with rope railings leading to a raised dais with a wonderful chaise longue where the lovelorn Duke Orsino languishes. At the opening of the show mist hangs over it all, and a "Songstress," Helen Walls, sings of love lost and unrequited to the limply attending Duke and to us. As the audience settles in there's continuing and increasing activity; we glimpse Olivia and her servants in her pavilion and are aware of other members of the cast conversing in mime and getting us all ready for the way we're going to have to attend to this play --shifting our attention at a moment's notice from one part of the house to another, and attending to the music, which in Twelfth Night is more central even than usual in a Shakespeare comedy, and which, composed and performed by members of the cast, is elegant and appropriate.

So far, so good. A great deal of the work of making Shakespeare engaging is done when you've given everyone the opportunity to be involved in anew creation, an attempt to make sense of the alien world together, with new assumptions and new materials. And the Theatre UNB gay-nineties, split-audience Fantasy-Island Illyria version of Twelfth Night gives it all an impressive try. If it didn't quite always work on Wednesday night, much of the problem is the unpredictable nature of the spark of theatre. Sometimes the timing doesn't work, sometimes the audience doesn't understand what they need to in order to see the humor or tension of a moment, sometimes a crucial line simply doesn't make enough sense.

It's important, for instance, especially in a play like this one, where much depends on attending to the nuances of language, and not just for the jokes, to get the language right, and it's always difficult for undergraduate students to learn to speak Elizabethan language -- and especially Elizabethan verse -- in such a way, not just that it make sense, but that it make sense to others unused to it. If it's not immediately clear to you, for instance, that the young shipwrecked Viola decides to present herself to the local duke as a eunuch, you might miss an awful lot of the byplay between them until you do figure it out. And her language is not easy to make clear:

I prithee, and I'll pay thee bounteously,
Conceal me what I am, and be my aid
For such disguise as haply shall become
The form of my intent. I'll serve this duke:
Thou shall present me as an eunuch to him:
It may be worth thy pains; for I can sing
And speak to him in many sorts of music
That will allow me very worth his service.
That a speech like that doesn't prepare most of an undergraduate audience for her appearance a few moments later as a male servant in the Duke's household is no surprise, and yet it lowers the temperature of the performance when a significant portion of the audiences then misses the irony of the Duke's lines as he sends him/her off to woo the distant, mourning Olivia:
For they shall yet belie thy happy years,
That say thou art a man: Diana's lip
Is not more smooth and rubious; thy small pipe
Is as the maiden's organ, shrill and sound,
And all is semblative a woman's part.
This is all, of course, obvious and often said, but it is worth reminding ourselves just how difficult bringing a modern audience to a play like this is, and how much an undergraduate cast accomplishes even when they don't succeed entirely.

Often, of course, Shakespeare productions skirt the complexities of comedy by making the slapstick, visual comedy matter more, and to a large extent UNB does this. Twelfth Night offers a number of different kinds of visual humor. One is, of course, the physical slapstick we get between the drunken, bumptious Sir Toby Belch and his victim, the witless fop Sir Andrew Aguecheek -- complicated by the interventions of the clown, Feste¹, probably one of the play's most memorable inventions. Mike Parsons, as a lovely, fresh-faced, effeminate Aguecheek, and Nicholas Cole, as a wonderfully agile and insouciant clown, are particularly imaginative and strong here, and consistently got the laughs the play needed to keep us engaged. Equally effective was Simon Peter Duvall as Malvolio. Though he seemed less overbearingly pompous and insufferable than perhaps he might in his opening scenes, he made up for it in the wonderful way he fell for the others' ruse -- reading aloud the fake letter from his mistress while the others titter and hide, scowling round the garden at stray noises, delighting himself at his own perspicuity, and -- perhaps especially -- trying to contort his face into a smile, in response to what he thinks are his mistress' instructions.

Another form of physical humor arises from the mutual incomprehension of the characters -- when, for instance, the lovestruck Orsino is almost absentmindedly fondling the "eunuch" Caesario, who, as Caesario, wants to repel the touch but at the same time, as Viola, who has fallen in love with Orsino, wishing she were in a position to accept it. Jamie Mitchell, as Viola, was wonderfully torn and puzzled by her plight.

And, of course, there's the usual Shakespeare slapstick: the hopeless duel Aguecheek is incited to by Sir Toby with the profoundly unwilling Caesario; the Three Stooges slapstick among Toby, Aguecheek, Feste and Maria, the pulling and tugging between Orsino and Olivia as they fight over their now mutually beloved Caesario. All this happened often enough, and solidly enough, to generate the laughter needed to keep the production rolling.

Finally, though, as always, it's about ensemble -- and fairly often it felt, on Wednesday evening at least, as though the timing weren't quite on, the slapstick not quite worked out, the repartee not quite achieving the spark it should have. And there were more loose ends and unsolved problems in the production than we're used to from Falkenstein and Johnston. For instance, the convention about when our attention moved from one scene to another wasn't consistent: on at least one occasion characters came on stage, froze, and then the scene began; on another, a scene ended with a freeze. At another point, a scene at the Duke's chaise longue waited to start until scenery was cleared away. Those things are okay if you make them the convention, but in this production they felt like unsolved problems.

And there were other unsolved mechanical problems. Though the scenery wasn't particularly oppressive, moving the flower boxes and statuary into place for the garden scenes, then clearing them away and bringing on stools and a table for the indoor scenes with the servants, often seemed an encumbrance and raised questions about how much of it was actually necessary. At the end of the duel scene, Sir Toby was left to gather up three swords and carry them off -- not exactly in character, of course, and again leaving the audience with a sense that a problem was still awaiting solution. And I was particularly struck by the fact that the Captain, having arrested Sebastian with a pistol, left his his pistol with Farina, a servant, when he left the stage. I kept wondering what Fabian was going to do with the pistol, but in fact she did nothing with it, simply carting it off at the end of the scene.

In spite of these problems, it remains true that even when Shakespeare almost works it's worth seeing. This is an ambitious and imaginative production, and if its reach is a little further than its grasp it still leaves an audience having lived in that alien, fantastical world for just a while.

¹Drummond Bowden writes:
Read your review and, while I agree with much of it, there is one point on which you --­ and the director --­ seem to me to be in error. Feste is a Fool, not a clown. By dress and through makeup the director portrays him a as a clown and furthers the misconception by overplayed antics. While ensuring laughs from the audience this interpretation masks the true role of the Fool as a scheming philosopher, much cleverer than his employer, or his clownish associates.
This seems quite right to me. I have seen Feste made pretty clownlike in other productions, but clearly there's more of an edge to the part if it's closer to, say, the clown in King Lear than the usual rustic clown.

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