Magazine article The New Yorker

The Mirror Has Two Faces

Magazine article The New Yorker

The Mirror Has Two Faces

Article excerpt



The joys and mysteries of Shakespeare.

From Zadie Smith's 2013 essay "Joy": "If you asked me if I wanted more joyful experiences in my life, I wouldn't be at all sure I did, exactly because it proves such a difficult emotion to manage. It's not at all obvious to me how we should make an accommodation between joy and the rest of our everyday lives." I think I know what she means. Because after joy flares up and inevitably dies, what are you left looking at, through the smeared window of the everyday? The same old predictability, the grocer putting out his wares again, the children off to school, your usual self. As Shakespeare wrote, "Where joy most revels, grief doth most lament; / Grief joys, joy grieves, on slender accident." More than most artists, Shakespeare spoke of the mystery of joy by articulating its questions: Where does it come from? How is it generated? And why must it leave us, change, disappear? Paul Chahidi, Mark Rylance, and Liam Brennan in the cross-dressing, gender-bending comedy "Twelfth Night."

The director Tim Carroll's grand and unsurpassable version of "Twelfth Night" (in repertory with "Richard III," at the Belasco) reminds us that there can be profound pleasure in such mysteries, that not fully understanding how Shakespeare organically created joy through so many characters and situations can actually add to the thrill of watching our shadow selves play at love and sorrow and reunion in his dramas. How marvellous it can be to let go of one's self-conscious rationalizing, with its fear of the uncontrollable, like joy, and sink helplessly into the theatre of feelings--tender and coarse, confused and projected, authentic and invented--that drives "Twelfth Night."

Orsino, the Duke of Illyria (the fantastic and sexy Liam Brennan), enters upstage right; his soul is heavy, his affect melodramatic. Poor Orsino, shipwrecked on the shoals of his unrequited love for Countess Olivia (Mark Rylance), commands the musicians who have been playing in the gallery above the stage to continue: their mournful music is apt accompaniment to his despair. Orsino is a straight drama queen, the kind of guy who wouldn't know what to feel without an audience to play to. He postures against Jenny Tiramani's brilliant stage design, which is faithful in almost every aspect to the sets and costumes of Shakespeare's time. The spare set, with an oak screen at the back of the stage to facilitate the actors' entrances and exits, is enhanced by Stan Pressner's visually acute lighting, which mixes electric luminescence with candles. Altogether, this is one of the best-designed productions out there, both vivid and otherworldly, like an Elizabethan drawing.

Waving his hand, Orsino gives voice to his sorrow: "If music be the food of love, play on, / Give me the excess of it; that surfeiting, / The appetite may sicken, and so die." In fact, it's actual death--Olivia's brother and father are recently deceased--that has sealed the object of Orsino's obsession off from him and from the world. Olivia, encased in black, with her tiny mouth slightly pursed and stained dark, as if by a bitter berry, is a living memento mori. But she's also a practical girl, and she doesn't mind expressing that practicality when she meets Cesario (the lovely Samuel Barnett), Orsino's page, whom he has dispatched to plead his case. There is much that Orsino doesn't know about his new hire, not least that Cesario is really a woman, Viola, shipwrecked on Illyria with her twin brother, Sebastian (Joseph Timms), who she assumes is dead. Viola is a precursor to Virginia Woolf's Orlando, the flesh and blood behind all those gender-theory courses; she knows that life will be easier for her if she can at least play at being a man. (She may also be mourning her brother through impersonation, just as Olivia mourns hers through speech.) With Olivia, Viola is both herself and not, male and female and not, and she speaks the love she wants to hear--from Orsino, to whom she cannot reveal her true identity, even as she longs to show him her heart. …

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