Billing, Christian M., Shakespeare Bulletin
Presented by the Donmar West End Company at the Wyndham's Theatre, London. December 5, 2008-March 7, 2009. Directed by Michael Grandage. Set and Costumes by Christopher Oram. Lighting by Nell Austin. Musical Composition by Julian Philips. Sound by Fergus O'Hare. Fights by Terry King. With Mark Bonnar (Orsino), Norman Bowman (Curio),James Howard (Valentine), Victoria Hamilton (Viola), Ian Drysdale (Sea Captain, Priest), Ron Cook (Sir Toby Belch), Samantha Spiro (Maria), Guy Henry (Sir Andrew Aguecheek), Zubin Varla (Feste), Indira Varma (Olivia), Derek Jacobi (Malvolio), Lloyd Hutchinson (Antonio) and Alex Waldman (Sebastian).
Alice. I know what men want.
Alice. Oh yes.
Dan. Tell me ...
Alice. Considers Men want a girl who looks like a boy.
Patrick Marber Closer Act I Scene II.
This production of Shakespeare's Twelfth Night formed part of the Donmar West End 2008-2009 season, in which Artistic Director Michael Grandage sought to take productions of "great drama at affordable prices to the heart of [London's] West End." The season also aimed at taking the company's work to larger audiences than those possible in the heavily subsidized but relatively small Donmar Warehouse in Covent Garden. As a result of the concomitant need to guarantee good box office receipts for the venture, each of the season's four plays was cast (and marketed) as a star-driven vehicle, with Kenneth Branagh taking the lead in Ivanov, Judi Dench in Madame de Sade, Derek Jacobi in Twelfth Night, and Jude Law in Hamlet. Performances took place in the Wyndham's Theatre--a 759-seat venue first opened in 1899 and fully refurbished in Louis XVI style in 2008.
Christopher Oram's scenography laid out the scene well before the play began. The setting consisted of a series of elegant, tall, louvered doors in distressed wood tones, which formed both an upstage wall and a set of Serlian side wings allowing for entrances and exits. The stage floor was made up of planks in distressed wood, with light lime-wash applied and false beams projecting from underneath the downstage edges to resemble ship's decking. This floor surface broke up as it jutted into the auditorium, suggesting shipwreck.
Beginning with a blackout, followed by thunder and lightning, 1.1 began not with the usual drooping Orsino, lamenting in melancholy tones the insufficiency of music as a permanent capturer of heartache, but rather with a raging Duke battling against the elements like a young Lear. As Oram's louvered doors opened center stage and flew out, the scene transformed to a beach, post-storm, and a substantial cyclorama provided the skyline background to Viola and the Sea Captain doing their own expository scene-setting. Viola (Victoria Hamilton, an actor recently described, to her embarrassment, as "her generation's Judi Dench") entered in a turquoise-bodiced dress with blue chiffon and taffeta skirts and a train much like a wedding dress (signifying, perhaps, the play's inevitable marital telos, but also evocative of a mermaid's tail, pointing to the watery subtext of Shakespeare's darkest comedy).
As performance continued, it became clear that Grandage and Oram intended to do much of the work of characterization through costume-related stereotypes; for Olivia and Malvolio this correlated largely to issues of class and confinement; but the technique was also evident in characters such as Sir Toby, whose first entrance saw the depraved lush arrive (on a stage lit to look as if it were midday) in white-tie evening dress, complete with party streamers around his neck. Feste likewise had his intellectual independence and rejection of the norms of his counterparts' society signified through a rag-patchwork cloak costume that made the balding, short-haired actor look like a European traveling hippie--complete with a distressed Spanish guitar, slung casually over his shoulder. Although some costume choices spoke to particular periods, there was no overall consistency of setting to the production, ether temporal or geographical--and some of its quirkier design decisions led one to wonder just where Grandage's Illyria was. This was particularly so in pre-scene additions such as that before 1.4. (a fencing-school scene between Valentine and Cesario) in which bizarre Spanish flamenco dancing took place in a shaft of open white light upstage right, and after which the audience was treated to slow tango-inspired dancing set to Andalucian music--evidence not only of the production's mixture of trans-historical dress and lack of geographical specificity, but also of its sometimes impenetrable symbolism.
For 1.5, Malvolio and Olivia wore elegant late-Victorian/early-Edwardian mourning/morning dress, Malvolio with a high wing collar that helped visually to reinforce his stuffy demeanor (a facet of performance supported by Jacobi's over-pronouncing in very plummy RP). Jacobi's physicality was also well maintained throughout these opening scenes; he walked and stood as if a rectally inserted ramrod ran from his colon to his cranium--a physical stance that went well with his outmoded costuming. Strangely, however, little attempt was made to masculinize Viola as Cesario. No effort, for example, was taken to hide Victoria Hamilton's shirt-covered bosom when she played the boy; indeed, the actor's chest even seemed augmented by the Bordeaux and gold-braided cummerbund she wore over her often-open-necked blue Hussar's jacket. Cesario also wore military trousers with a generous female bottom cut, which again seemed somewhat to (over-) emphasize the capacious backside of this production's "Viola beneath." The poor (or perhaps deliberately conservative) costume choice was most jarring in the first Cesario scene, when "his" ensemble (together with a wig that made Hamilton look like a well-coiffured 1940s Vogue cover-girl) created a strong female look that called into question the audience's acceptance of Cesario as male on any level.
Fortunately, however, it was Olivia's corporality and costuming that quickly took and held center stage from the moment Varma uttered: "we will draw the curtain and show you the picture." Prior to this, Olivia wore a veil that not only covered her face and torso, but reached down to the Roman-style couch on which she sat. The thin cloth added vertical substance to the heavy folds of Olivia's black dress, creating a serene, distanced, sculptural quality. When it was lifted, and Varma rose, the audience saw that she wore beneath her veil a sexy, off-the-shoulder, tight-bodiced dress with heavy bustle. As her flesh was revealed, the slender architecture of Varma's shoulder line and upper torso, her heavy black eyebrows, and her black hair falling over pale shoulders were sonnet-inspiring stuff. Subtly, the audience were invited to consider the inappropriate and constrictive trap-pings of class and mourning in which this beautiful and desirable young woman had encased herself. At the same time (once Varma's face had been made visible), one of the actor's most famous roles (Niobe, wife of Lucius Vorenus, in the BBC/HBO collaboration Rome) came to the forefront of my mind and served to augment Varma/ Olivia's beauty; this meta-performative interplay that was evidently not lost on designer Christopher Oram, whose nod to Varma's fame in this role was made clear by his placing a piece of specifically Roman furniture center-stage.
Varma was the visual and thematic heart of acts one and two because she stayed center stage on her classical couch during the entirety of the Sebastian/Olivia proxy-wooing scene and (provocatively, given her textual absence from them) subsequent scenes between Antonio and Sebastian, and Malvolio and Cesario (2.1 and 2.2). During the latter, Varma watched the dialogue intently but was always herself the center of attention, not least because she was not merely spoken of, but illuminated in shafts of open white down-light generated by fifteen spotlights whose beams were picked out in mister-haze, gently propelled into the upper half of the proscenium.
From this incessant soft-focus on the desirable yet unattainable female body, the production moved to more prosaic would-be consumables: this time cakes and ale, in a scene that successfully provided the melancholy despair of unfulfilled middle aged men, looking for meaning in their lives, but finding only an emptiness that no amount of wine, women, or song can fill. Feste was virtuoso in vocal range and lute-style classical guitar playing, and his centrality to the scene was made visually apparent by the fact that he occupied the place previously held by Olivia on the Roman couch--with Sir Toby and Sir Andrew assembled at his feet downstage right and downstage left respectively. The catch "hold thy peace thou knave" was well executed until the arrival of Malvolio in dressing gown, pajamas, and slippers (with gold crests on the crown of each foot). In semi-darkness, Malvolio's torch singled out players' faces like a searchlight: first Sir Andrew, then Maria, then Sir Toby. The audience saw in Jacobi's performance the reason Maria turns against Malvolio and gives to Sir Toby the means to have his way with the Puritan: clear and simple revenge, for Jacobi's Malvolio was unnecessarily cruel. In sublime contrast to Malvolio's clipped, slow-burning anger, the conclusion to the scene was one of great tenderness in which Sir Andrew and Sir Toby contemplated with naive innocence the notion of being adored, simultaneously allowing the audience to see just how hollow these characters' lives are and, equally, how necessary a simple thing like love is for each of us to live happily in the world.
The production returned in 2.4 to a semi-naked Duke (now dressed in Kung-Fu-style linen pajama bottoms and a faux-rustic sleeved cape). Despite his best efforts to play the smoldering sex-bomb, however, in this scene of hetero- and homo-erotic blurring, Mark Bonnar's Orsino was consistently upstaged by recurring use of Oram's ingeniously-designed back wall. The screen of elegant doors, now composed in hinged sections, was arranged for this scene as a variety of beautifully-lit wall surfaces, in which opening and closing doors allowed actors playing Orsino's young courtiers, and subsequently Feste, to make their entrances and exits. Here, as generally, costuming choices meant that this Orsino/Cesario scene played less successfully than subsequent Olivia/Orsino ones; not least because Varma consistently looked more appealing and more believable as a woman than Hamilton did as a boy (or a woman in boy's clothes). Accordingly, most of the erotic thrall and sexual tension necessary to the successful development of the Cesario/Orsino plot was lost and, in a sentiment uncharacteristic of the majority of my theatregoing experiences with Twelfth Night, I felt myself longing for Viola to find a pretty frock, put it on, and become a fetching woman once more--instead of this bouffant boy with a big bum, warbling unconvincingly about patience and monuments. Given that one of the greatest pleasures I derive from Twelfth Night is the joy it provides in playfully experimental androgyny, and the meta-theatrical pleasure of reveling in cross-dressed deferments of heterosexual "legitimization," the fact that I was reduced to such gender-political conservatism by this production's costume aesthetics was downright depressing.
The cyclorama that lay upstage was next lit to evoke a midday seascape for the box-tree scene and the wooden decking floor became an imagined beach as Maria and Sirs Toby and Andrew hid behind a windbreak upstage left prior to Malvolio's entrance. The upstage/downstage comic play was very pantomimic for the rest of the scene. One was almost tempted to call out: "They're behind you" to the much-upstaged Malvolio. Once again, differentiation of character and humor were achieved through costuming choices: all of the non-stuffy characters wore pseudo-Edwardian casual clothing indicative of the well-heeled classes. Malvolio, however, was still in formal morning dress with winged collar. As the scene progressed, the choreography of the mockers became stylistically derivative of the Marx Brothers, or the three Stooges, and much was made of vertical and horizontal arrangements of heads as they appeared above or beside the windbreak. Finally, the hilarity of the onstage audience was such that they stuffed handkerchiefs in their mouths and emerged, following Malvolio's exit, in staggering paroxysms of dammed-up mirth. Such light-hearted moments are good places to call intervals.
Zubin Varla began the second half beating complex rhythms on an African drum. Why, I do not know. As Cesario entered, the house lights stayed up for the expected applause before the scene proper began. Toby and Andrew entered with picnic hamper and bottle bags, and Olivia entered wearing a pair of cream-colored, high-waisted, flat fronted slacks, beige and white brogues, and a white horizontally pinstriped sleeveless vest. She also sported large white plastic hooped earrings, cardinal-red lipstick, and a broad brimmed semi-floppy straw hat. The ensemble made her look like a jet-setting 1950s glamour-puss. Her mourning was evidently over. Antonio and Sebastian continued the seaside theme, appearing dressed as a sailor carrying a kitbag (inside which, one presumed, lay Viola's "mermaid" dress), and a blue-and-white-striped Edwardian bathing costume. All sense of sprezzatura was lost in this mishmash of sartorial signifiers, and the production seemed to be teetering towards a summer seaside spectacular of Noel Coward's Hay Fever. Expecting characters to bound in with tennis rackets, I was entirely unprepared for the costume catastrophe that was the entrance of Malvolio, cross-gartered: for this, Jacobi wore a white and black sailor's cap (with golden crest); an open necked white shirt, with yellow cravat; a navy blue blazer with polished gold buttons and a bright yellow handkerchief in its breast pocket; white knee-length shorts; yellow Pringle-style socks, drawn up to the knee; and the same brown and white brogues as his mistress. Rarely have I seen costume do so much acting, for it was a full thirty seconds before the applause and laughter dissipated and Jacobi could begin his 3.4 entrance speech.
Other aspects of the second half were equally disheartening: the fight scene in 3.4 was hideously underplayed and, despite offering a glimpse of clashing rapiers between Aguecheek and Cesario (as well as Belch against Antonio), the whole thing was too quickly stopped by Orsino's men. Accordingly, not only was there no spectacle in one of the play's few opportunities for well-honed theatre craft (fight director Terry King got his money for very little work) but, more importantly, there was no danger evident in this scene or elsewhere. As earlier with the (homo-) erotics of the Cesario/Orsino relationship, the dark underbelly of Shakespeare's cruelest comedy was hidden from the audience, making the play a two-dimensional farce rather than the clouded opal it actually is.
The closest the production came to malice was in Malvolio's imprisonment, which took on the character of sensory deprivation. However, Jacobi's acting was not up to the task of communicating the suffering of a torture victim; this was a scene he could not camp up, and Sirs Toby and Andrew had hitherto been so sympathetically drawn that it was difficult to conceive of them as true tormentors. Feste as priest, with broad brimmed black hat, also played the scene for laughs and there was accordingly little sense to Malvolio's final desire to be revenged. As the play drew to its expected closure of heterosexual coupling, the additional lack of any sense of challenge to the conservative values of the upper classes (social interrogation that this production consistently avoided) was most evident: Orsino came to the final scene wearing a casual beige pinstripe suit and white leather shoes. Olivia matched him, tonally, in a spotless white jacket. The production thus chose sartorially to confirm that this very posh Illyria was a place in which nothing could be contaminated by dirt or malice. Yet despite its deft cleanliness and some very competent acting, the production left me cold.
In a review of December 12th 2008, Daily Telegraph critic Charles Spencer claimed that: "the Donmar has produced a Night close to perfection." Quite so, but I for one did not want the near-perfect Romantic Comedy it offered; not least because this play at its best should show audiences quite clearly that the world is a place not only of love, but also of misunderstanding, manipulation, and misery; a place in which fathers and brothers are lost, in which normative social order crushes individuality, and in which personal histories can and do transpire as blanks. In short, a really good production of Twelfth Night should show us that nothing and nobody is perfect and that love does not conquer all, nor can it always be attained. Unfortunately, Grandage's production did none of this.
CHRISTIAN M. BILLING, University of Hull…
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Publication information: Article title: Twelfth Night. Contributors: Billing, Christian M. - Author. Journal title: Shakespeare Bulletin. Volume: 27. Issue: 3 Publication date: Fall 2009. Page number: 491+. © 2009 Johns Hopkins University Press. COPYRIGHT 2009 Gale Group.
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