Shakespeare’s language the real star of Peter Hall’s Twelfth Night

Twelfth Night, Cottesloe Theatre, 12 February 2011

The programme for Peter Hall’s Twelfth Night reproduced his introduction to the 1960 Folio Society edition of the play. His thoughts on the piece apparently needed no updating, so that what he wrote 51 years ago could stand for his account of the play today.

It was also back to the future with the visual look of the production. Just like Peter Hall’s 1958 staging, this Twelfth Night had an autumnal setting and Caroline era costumes.

The lack of any radical novelty in the direction indicated that Peter Hall saw this production not as an opportunity to explore the possibilities of theatre, but more as a chance to pay homage to the simply beauty of the play’s language.

Long-term saturation in Shakespeare’s texts may have convinced him that although their language is only really alive in performance, the plays should never be staged in a way that trumps the pure eloquence of their poetry.

The stage of the Cottesloe was thus bare apart from a scattering of leaves at the sides and back. A brown leaf-patterned canopy hung over it providing an extra autumnal dimension.

The verse-speaking was slow and deliberate with distinct pauses at the end of each line. The characters speaking verse, most notably those at the Duke’s court, tended to stand around in formal groups in their red Caroline era costumes. A parallel was created between the delivery of the poetry and the restrained elegance of its visual setting.

This heightened awareness of the verse was then set off against the unconstrained pace and energy of the prose, so that this aspect of the play also became a prominent feature. Some productions rush and gabble indiscriminately through verse and prose. This one paid homage to the verse and in so doing showed us the prose as a distinct stylistic choice rather than a colourless default option.

When Simon Callow’s Sir Toby was in full flow, his rough, ruddy gargoyle of a figure bowed and creeped his way around the stage, bellowing out his lines at speed to form a stark contrast with the leisurely, wistful restraint of the Duke’s court.

Here the language was the star and given utmost prominence. If the production were to have a guiding theme or motto it would have been “We Love These Words”.

Shadows

As the house lights went down at the start of the performance, the shadowy figures of Orsino and his courtiers moved into position. When the stage lights went up they bowed respectfully to their Duke who languished on reddish cushions beneath the autumn brown canopy.

The orchestra played in a gallery stage left while a single flautist also performed onstage to provide a recipient for Orsino’s comments about the music. The Duke paused after “and so die” allowing the musicians to play on. His comment about ‘that strain again’ then referred to a distinct passage of music, which was repeated at his command.

Orsino’s languid appreciation of the language of the music was mirrored in our equally languid appreciation of the music of the language in which he spoke.

As the scene continued the sedate pace of the dialogue also helped to clarify the exposition. But at the same time the slowness of the delivery and the autumnal colour scheme worked together to create an air of melancholy.

Bright lights flashed behind the canopy at the start of 1.2 whereupon it lowered completely to the ground to provide us with our first glimpse of Viola. She walked across the canopy looking extremely wet and bedraggled. Rebecca Hall gave us some more slow verse speaking and an indication that her Viola was wide-eyed and innocent.

With the canopy back in position, a table and chairs were brought on for 1.3. Simon Callow’s Sir Toby slouched in the darkness before the stage lights went up on his crumpled figure. Maria entered and woke him from his drunken slumber, pulling on one of his braces.

The characters spoke in fast-paced prose creating a complete change of mood in a deliberate contrast to what had gone before.

The absolute relish which Simon Callow brought to his portrayal of the dissolute Sir Toby was a joy to watch.

His foil, Sir Andrew, dressed in blue with Cavalier hair, was inept in his accosting skills. Spurred on by Sir Toby, he made a faltering advance but soon found his hand clamped to Maria’s breast for the buttery bar sequence, in which Olivia’s maid showed herself to be Sir Andrew’s confident superior.

That strain again

Some fun was had with Sir Andrew and Sir Toby trying out various styles of dancing to comic effect. When Simon Callow said “My walk should be a very jig” he sashayed down stage as if inspired by some unheard Latin music. But it was left to Sir Andrew to provide the greatest amusement as his attempts at a caper resulted in an inelegant strain, an unscripted oath being muttered under his breath.

Back in the formal world of the court, in 1.4 we saw Rebecca Hall dressed as Cesario for the first time. She was dressed in the identical red Caroline era costume as the male courtiers, her long hair was left down to match the current male style.

Her Viola/Cesario was physically gawky and reacted to her new condition with a nonchalance bordering on flippancy. Her statement at the end of the scene “myself would be his wife” was delivered with the same awkwardness. Viola could not quite believe what was happening to her, but found it slightly funny all the same.

David Ryall’s Feste was the complete opposite to Viola. He was old and worldly-wise in a dirty coat and drooping coxcomb. This characterisation was an excellent idea, as his fooling could be seen as the wisdom of long experience instead of empty, nervous joking.

Maria enjoyed getting the punch line to his joke about the two points/falling gaskins in 1.5. Feste read the motto by “Quinapalus” from the inside of his hat as if it had been inscribed there for reference purposes.

Olivia and Malvolio both wore black outfits; the former because in mourning, the latter out of a severity of mind. Malvolio’s response to Feste’s fooling about Olivia’s brother was cold but confident.

Sir Toby’s drunken entry provided another opportunity for Simon Callow to show us his excellent turn at sottish acting.

Olivia veiled herself, Maria and one of her attendants creating a trio to greet Cesario, who got down on one knee to deliver Orsino’s message. But despite her ceremonious gesture, she spoke her part as if not quite believing in it. This seemed to prompt Olivia’s question “Are you a comedian?” Cesario broke off from her address, becoming less formal, to ask who was the lady of the house.

She enjoyed bantering nautical terminology with Maria, who was trying to get her to leave, as if playing with language was coming naturally to someone whose entire mission was to deliver a message she could not utter with any sincerity.

Olivia’s reactions to Cesario were muted during their conversation. There was no immediate sign that she had been smitten with him. Only a slight flicker of interest was visible when she invited the young man to return to her. Her subsequent avowal of her love was restrained.

Lady Gentleman in red

Sebastian appeared at the start of 2.1 in the same red outfit worn by Cesario. Totally lacking in boyishness that might have prompted confusion between the siblings, Sebastian would always be distinguishable from his sister by his five o’clock shadow and builder’s jaw. There was no visible attempt to eroticise his relationship with Antonio.

Malvolio caught up with Cesario in 2.2 and handed over Olivia’s ring with his characteristic prissy disdain. Viola seemed to see the funny side of Olivia’s fancy for her. When the realisation hit her, she shifted her weight from foot to foot in her now characteristic ungainly manner.

Viola said “I.. am the man” in bemused disbelief with the pause as indicated. Her final couplet about time untangling the knot was spoken quite calmly and not with any kind of frustration.

It was as if she was experiencing Illyria in the same dream-like terms that her brother Sebastian later makes explicit. If so, then this was a very cleverly drawn psychological bond that the separated siblings were sharing.

The stage was dark for the entry of Sir Toby and Sir Andrew in 2.3, both of them drunk. As they sat round a dining table, Feste joined them and posed between them when referring to the picture of “we three”.

Sir Andrew’s description of Feste’s fooling was marred by his intoxicated mispronunciation of the names involved.

When Feste sang his love song, Sir Toby listened with a wistful mien as if recalling happy memories, while the less experienced Sir Andrew exuded an air of hopeful expectation as if relishing only a distant, future prospect of amorous fulfilment. This silent reminder of the essential difference between the two characters was particularly effective.

After Maria entered, disturbed by their singing of a catch, Sir Toby became quite angry at Olivia’s insistence on quiet. He roared with anger that they were “consanguineous”. This was quite striking as his anger came from nowhere.

Malvolio got a laugh for his ridiculous nightgown and cap. Sir Toby’s excellent cakes and ale jibe provided a comical slap-down. Sat on a chair turned away from the table, Sir Toby called for a stoup of wine. Maria was poised to pour when Malvolio, almost by the exit door at the rear of the stage, turned and warned her not to provide “means” for any more revelling. He exited, prompting Maria to shout at him to go shake his ears, upon which she poured Sir Toby his drink.

It seemed apt that the serving of drink became the symbol of these characters’ libertarian disobedience.

Maria unveiled her plot, which prompted a rather lame joke from Sir Andrew about her horse making Malvolio an ass, which fell characteristically flat.

The problem of the Fool’s absence from the gulling scene was deftly explained by Feste silently waving away Maria’s suggestion that “the Fool make a third”.

As the intimacy between them increased with the hatching of the plot, Maria came close to touching Sir Andrew, but instinctively turned from him to devote her attentions to Sir Toby, prompting his description of her after her exit as “a good wench”. Sir Andrew’s disappointment at failing to impress Maria then found expression in his touchingly sad comment “I was adored once too”.

Master mistress

Orsino and Cesario shared an intimate conversation in 2.4 on the comfy cushions in the Duke’s palace waiting for Feste to arrive. The hearty man-to-man mood of their woman talk soon changed when the fool’s song began. Orsino lay on his back with Cesario crouched behind his head. S/he then began touching his head and then his face, something which Orsino visibly enjoyed: his expression was one of intense joy as he clasped her hands to him.

The slow verse-speaking made this scene more languorous; it also brought out the clarity of thought behind Cesario’s complex statements about her situation. This was particularly true when she explained that she was all the daughters of her father’s house and all the brothers too. Communicated with such deliberate ease, it would have been difficult for Orsino to not have connected this with the physical familiarity the pair had just enjoyed. It was a brilliantly teasing moment, all the more enjoyable for the audience for being drawn out. But Orsino showed no sign of twigging.

After this most intimate of visual and verbal poetry, the interval came.

Part Two

During the second half of the performance the set was decorated with a perspective model of a house and gardens. For the start of 2.5 there were also three elegant leaf-patterned screens. Three step ladders were placed behind the one centre stage and one step ladder behind that stage right; in front of this screen there was also a seat.

We were introduced to the Cockney Fabian and Maria placed her trick letter on the seat before the conspirators hid behind the screens.

Simon Paisley Day’s Malvolio continued to take himself very seriously without a hint of self doubt as he daydreamed about achieving higher social status, much to the fury of Sir Toby. The plotters popped up intermittently from behind the screens on the step ladders.

Once sat on the bench, Malvolio spied the letter and brushed it onto the ground. His comment about leaving Olivia sleeping carried no bawdy overtone. But when he referred to winding up his watch, he mimed this action with a repeated movement of his finger and thumb. When continued into his remark about playing with “some rich jewel”, the repeated gesture took on a bawdy connotation.

Sir Andrew crawled to Malvolio’s side in order to retrieve and reposition the letter. But when Malvolio’s speech turned to the “foolish knight” Sir Andrew spoke up quite loudly in recognition that this was a reference to him: all this just inches away from Malvolio. He was saved from discovery only by the stage convention of convenient invisibility.

Malvolio found the letter and began to walk around the garden reading it. This caused the conspirators to scatter as Olivia’s steward wandered behind the screens. At one point Sir Andrew faced into a fold in one of the screen’s panels, remaining very still and hoping to go unnoticed.

The instruction in the letter to “revolve” almost caused Malvolio to turn round, but he cut this movement short, turning the letter through 360 degrees instead.

Despite the mounting evidence that he was the subject of the letter, he only fully grasped its meaning when he came across the word “steward”. At this point the lights went on and his mood became ecstatic. His exclamation about “daylight and champaign” captured the sudden clarity of his realisation.

He moved towards the exit, but suddenly returned to read the postscript. Once Malvolio had finally gone, the others emerged and Sir Toby offered his neck for Maria to tread on.

Running gag

Viola’s joking with Feste at the start of act three created a strong contrast between the wizened old fool and the young cross-dressed ingénue. She again looked as if she were playing a part and finding the entire process entertaining.

Despite his worldly wisdom and perspicacity, Feste showed no sign of seeing through Viola’s disguise when making his joke about Jove sending her a beard.

After her delightful speech about the skill of a fool, Cesario was interrupted by Sir Toby and Sir Andrew, who was carrying a French phrase book which he consulted to deliver his Gallic greeting. He then had to fumble through it clumsily trying to make sense of Cesario’s reply in fluent French.

The long exchange between Cesario and Olivia was the first part of the performance where an absence was felt. There was something vague about the relationship between the two. Whether it was Olivia’s reticence or Cesario’s lack of seriousness, the sequence felt underplayed. Neither of them seemed to really engage with the other.

Two brief scenes (3.2 and 3.3) showed us Sir Toby persuading Sir Andrew to write a challenge to Cesario, with Maria’s announcement of Malvolio’s new costume, followed by Sebastian taking Antonio’s purse to go off into town. The purse was dangled in mid-air for quite some time to imprint its form on our memories.

Malvolio appeared in his yellow cross garters with yellow backing visible beneath the slits in his breeches, topped off with a yellow sash across his black jacket. He had thrown himself into his new look with the utmost seriousness. While some Malvolios descend into clowning at this point with the actor giving a nod to the audience about the ridiculousness of the character’s appearance, Simon Paisley Day was as earnest as if he were wearing a suit to an interview.

Olivia held her hand out to Malvolio at the key “Wilt thou go to bed…?” line. In spite of his professed acceptance, he never seemed genuinely intent on taking up the presumed offer.

He was equally solemn in coming forward and addressing the audience with his insight that Olivia sending Sir Toby to have “special care” of him was consistent with the content of the letter.

Fabian, Maria and Sir Toby entered dressed as priestly exorcists with crucifixes and holy water. They surrounded and literally demonised Malvolio, making spitting noises as if splatters of holy water were fizzing on contact with his demonic presence.

Cockney Fabian delivered the line about the scene being presented on the stage and being received as an improbable fiction with a knowing look to the audience. Sir Andrew’s challenge was read out by Sir Toby causing much merriment all round.

After Olivia had put a miniature portrait of herself around Cesario’s neck, Sir Toby informed the disguised Viola of the challenge, but she once again seemed more bemused than shocked. As Cesario was unarmed, Sir Toby had to sling a sword belt across her shoulder so that she would stand prepared for Sir Andrew’s onslaught.

Ninja skillz

When the two combatants confronted each other, Cesario struggled to take her sword out of its scabbard. A series of pulls and tugs were to no avail, until with one mighty stroke she drew the weapon, which yielded so easily that she ended up with it poised high above her head as if about to strike a deadly downward blow.

Seeing this, Sir Andrew tried to copy Cesario but had difficulty getting his hand through the intricate guard of his Renaissance rapier. Antonio entered and separated them before any fighting could take place. Sir Toby countered Antonio, while Cesario and Sir Andrew stood apart and watched stage left. They both agreed to put their swords up.

Antonio’s arrest saw Cesario get out her purse to offer him money, allowing us to see that it was identical to that lent to Sebastian.

Cesario came forward to tell us about Antonio’s mention of her brother Sebastian. This marked the first time that her bemusement gave way to genuine concern.

Sir Andrew’s parting gesture was to punch his fist into the palm of his hand in anticipation of what he thought he might do to his opponent later.

Feste kept touching his nose when talking to Sebastian at the start of 4.1 so that when he finally said “nor this is not my nose neither” he was referring to something to which he had already been drawing attention for some time.

Sir Andrew fought with Sebastian, and Sir Toby became embroiled too. Olivia brought the fighting to an end, discovering, then leading away, her “Cesario”.

The stage went dark for 4.2 with Malvolio crouched blindfolded in a bird cage with his hands and feet tied. Feste used a high voice when pretending to be Sir Topas.

Malvolio’s cramped and inhuman imprisonment was quite startling. The bird cage looked like a distant, albeit sickly, reference to Lear’s promise to Cordelia that they would sing together like birds in a cage.

Sebastian entered through the back door of the set for 4.3 describing his time spent with Olivia. But unlike many contemporary productions there was no overt hint of sexual activity between them (such as showing him rising from her bed).

Olivia looked stunning in her orange wedding dress, which matched the red colour scheme of the production as she invited Sebastian to the hastily arranged nuptials.

Coming together

It was time to bring all the plot strands together in the marathon final act/scene 5.1.

After being entertained by Feste’s fooling and condemning the captured Antonio, Orsino found himself once again rejected by Olivia. His apparent jealous threat against Cesario was not made with any violence or attempt at harming her. He was forceful but calm.

Cesario followed Orsino (to a presumed death) but there was something unrealistic about her submission. Rebecca Hall’s portrayal of the character so far had not been passionate enough to make Cesario’s actions here seem likely. Nor was her sudden avowal of love particularly convincing. Cesario/Viola had always floated over the surface of events rather than being caught up in them.

The trigger word “husband” was said by Olivia just as Orsino reached the stage right doorway.

Sir Andrew entered with a bleeding wound on his head. Sir Toby limped on stage assisted by Fabian and Feste. Sir Toby was drunk (again) which made his criticism of the intoxicated surgeon all the more funny.

As Sir Andrew was led away, his wig came off revealing a scabby head with only tufts of hair. This pox symptom neatly referred back to Sir Andrew’s conversation in 1.3 about how “the arts” would have mended his hair. We could now see how badly it was in need of repair.

The reunion between the separated siblings was blocked to create a very pleasing series of visually poetic effects befitting a production that emphasised the poetry of the language.

Sebastian entered upstage right and moved directly towards Olivia standing stage left. Viola stood with her back to him at this point creating a mirror image of the two identically dressed characters. She then recognised her brother’s voice and turned to face his back while he was still talking to Olivia.

Orsino saw the pair and announced how similar they looked. But Sebastian did not notice this. He had caught sight of Antonio stage left near to Olivia and engaged him in conversation. His friend wondered how the apple had become “cleft in two”.

Olivia moved from stage left to the centre. Sebastian turned from Antonio and faced his sister, the two of them forming another distinct mirror image, with the centrally placed Olivia exclaiming “Most wonderful!” from a perfect vantage point.

The verse conversation between Viola and Sebastian proceeded through a slow process of verification and fact checking. Orsino finally took Viola’s hand when the full implication of it for all the characters became known.

Feste read Malvolio’s letter madly and it was given to Fabian to read. When the steward himself entered, he still seemed very much in control of himself despite his justifiable frustration. This made his threat to wreak revenge a genuine menace rather than an idle parting shot.

There was a brief moment of comedy as Orsino incorrectly tried to pair off with Sebastian before correcting himself.

Everyone departed apart from Feste who used his tabor as a prop to illustrate the various stage of his life as set out in his closing song. He tapped on it to indicate rain, held it in front of him like an apron to indicate his wife and put it by his cheek as a pillow.

Conclusions

This production succeeding in telling the story and also giving due respect to the poetry of the language. But there were times when the atmosphere was too mellow and could have benefited from a bit more spice. This would have made the emotional lives of many of the characters more credible.

However, there is a lot to be said for making a performance of Shakespearean verse sound like a poetry reading. Differentiating between verse and prose brings out the flavour of each style of writing so that their distinct dramatic effects can be fully felt.

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