‘Twelfth Night’ in Performance | Speak the Speech

By March 24, 2016 No Comments

Karl Falconer is an award-winning theatre and film director based in England. His work with Shakespeare and classical drama has been staged across the UK and Ireland, and he has produced work in collaboration with the Royal Shakespeare Company and National Theatre, amongst others. His work has received support and praise from key industry figures including Dame Judi Dench, Sir Kenneth Branagh and more. His production of Twelfth Night toured the UK and Ireland in 2014 and was revived in 2015.

Or What You Will. It’s the subtitle that says everything about this play. Anarchy rules in Ilyria. It might be twelve days after Christmas, it might not be. It might be a comedy, but maybe not. It could be a typical love story… or then again, it could be an immensely forward thinking play about all kinds of relationships, new and old.

Twelfth Night stands in the middle of Shakespeare’s career, written in about 1600-1601. Set in Ilyria, it tells the story of two shipwrecked twins who are separated by a storm and forced to meet the locals. The inhabitants in question are a lively bunch, obsessed with loving and partying. Ilyria itself is a place that may not be familiar to modern audiences – it wasn’t even particularly vogue in Shakespeare’s time – appearing only once more in his work in a reference from Henry VI, Part II. In today’s geography, Ilyria covers the coastal areas of modern day Slovenia, Croatia, Montenegro and Albania.

Matthew Kelly made a fantastically foppish Toby Belch in the inaugural production at the new Liverpool Everyman

Matthew Kelly made a fantastically foppish Sir Toby Belch in the inaugural production at the new Liverpool Everyman.

As always with Shakespeare, of course, there is a twist. Reading or watching Twelfth Night, it’s easy to forget that it’s set anywhere foreign at all; for the heart of this story is quintessentially English. Feste’s songs, in particular, which make up the backbone of the play, are hugely steeped in English Folk music, and the concept of Twelfth Night itself is particularly Christian (as Epiphany Eve). This is a skill frequently deployed by Shakespeare: representing the foreign through his own contemporary lens. The Merchant of Venice and Julius Ceasar are particularly strong examples of this elsewhere in his work, where Shakespeare presents the politics and geography of the ‘Other’ and makes it hit with immediate resonance for his own audience.

So, it’s twelve days after Christmas and the party’s over. The countess Olivia is in mourning, Malvolio maintains his strict grip over proceedings at court, and Orsino is hopelessly head over heels with a woman who doesn’t love him back. Viola and Sebastian have been separated in a storm, believing each other to be dead, and all in all it doesn’t sound like the most cheerful of set-ups for a raucous romp.

Twelfth Night, like all of Shakespeare’s comedies, has so much to it. The similarities with As You Like It, an earlier comedy of Shakespeare’s, are striking. Not just in its folk-like Englishness, but particularly in its hidden dark side. It’s not something that is particularly prevalent in Shakespeare’s earlier comedies, such as A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but as we move through his career, the tragedy lurking behind comedy becomes ever more prominent in his comedy plays. Just compare Midsummer to The Tempest to see the full proof of this point.

And this, for me, is why Twelfth Night is so spectacularly perfect. It is simply perfect. This is a play that has everything: comedy, music, tears. The experience of watching Twelfth Night is so endlessly enriching, which makes it a play incredibly ahead of its time.

Malvolio courts Olivia in the celebrated all-male production from the Globe theatre

Malvolio courts Olivia in the celebrated all-male production from the Globe theatre.

In our production, which toured the UK and Ireland back in 2014, we drew heavily on the influence of the play’s exoticism. We chose a holiday beach resort as our setting for Ilyria – somewhere in the vein of Ibiza, for instance – where party-time rules and staying up late is the norm. After all, as Sir Toby himself says, surely going to bed after mid-night is going to bed early?

This setting is more than just an aesthetic, however. Aligning the play within the constructs of a holiday setting, we create an environment where anything is possible. The young, carefree, holiday attitude of ‘anything-goes’ serves this play particularly well. For Twelfth Night is a play about romance. Holiday romance, wasted romance, whatever. Everyone in Twelfth Night is obsessed with love. They’re falling in and out of it, wanting it, needing it, rejecting it: Love dominates above everything else.

And through Love we reach something deeper: Loneliness. Twelfth Night is an incredibly lonely play; everyone wants love because everyone is terrified of the alternative. As we see at the beginning of the play, Olivia has subjected herself to a world of self-confinement, and instead of being able to reflect on the past and look forward as she mourns her dead-brother, we, in fact, witness her caught in a sense of stasis. Everything is grinding to a halt. It takes the arrival of Viola, disguised as Cesario, to bring life back to this void.

I mentioned earlier that Twelfth Night feels ahead of its time, and Loneliness is a key ingredient in this. The story of Malvolio is well known: the miserable court-master tricked into believing his Lady loves him, ends up making a complete fool of himself by arriving before her ‘cross-gartered’ (2.5, Line 121). So far, so funny. Malvolio is then treated as insane, captured ‘in a dark-house and bound’ and mentally tortured (3.4, Line 102).

Richard Wilson, as Malvolio, is trapped and tortured by Feste and the others, hitting an uncomfortable tone in any production.

Richard Wilson, as Malvolio, is trapped and tortured by Feste and the others, hitting an uncomfortable tone in any production.

So where does this fit in the comfortable world of a typical Shakespearean comedy? Even the most placid of productions hits an uncomfortable note when we hit the scene in the Cell. Shakespeare achieves a significant coup here. We’ve all been laughing along at the misfortune of Malvolio. The Letter Scene and the yellow stockings are almost as famous as the play itself, but suddenly we’re on the back foot. We’re being made to feel guilty. Shakespeare has turned the tables dramatically and now the finger is pointing at us, co-conspirators in this cruel plot, laughing at the lonely old man.

‘Tell me, in the modesty of honour,
Why you have given me such clear lights of favour,
Bade me come smiling and cross-garter’d to you,
To put on yellow stockings and to frown
Upon Sir Toby and the lighter people;
And, acting this in an obedient hope,
Why have you suffer’d me to be imprison’d,
Kept in a dark house, visited by the priest,
And made the most notorious geck and gull
That e’er invention play’d on? tell me why.’
(Twelfth Night, Act 5 Scene 1, 308-317)

Shakespeare pointing the finger at us is typical in a play obsessed with its own theatricality. ‘I am not that I play,’ says Cesario (1.5, Line 128). ‘If this were played upon a stage,’ comments one character after Malvolio finds the Letter, ‘I would condemn it as an improbable fiction’ (3.4, Line 97). This always gets a big laugh in performance.

But this is a play that asks so many questions – not necessarily of the characters but of us as the audience too. There are barely any notable differences between the genders in this play; highlighted even further by Viola’s cross-dressing turn as the servant Cesario. Sexuality is pushed to the extremes: is Orsino expressing a homosexual desire in his falling for the ‘male’ servant Cesario? What about Olivia? The mind boggles for what she’s thinking of when she finds out that her husband has a twin. ‘Most wonderful!’ she proclaims at the end of the play (5.1, Line 201).

Twelfth Night is particularly suited to ourdoor performances.

Twelfth Night is particularly suited to ourdoor performances.

In many ways, the music of Feste really tells us everything we need to know about this play. In performance, it’s always the songs that lift this story into the stratosphere. Music is important in any modern-day production, but the fact that Shakespeare so deeply embedded his play in the power of music speaks volumes about its influence in his own time. ‘If music be the food of love’ (1.1, Line 1) – one production I saw recently played upon this sentiment heavily, ending the production with the illumination of the word ‘If’ projected onto the back wall. This was used as the opening production in a new theatre, and speaks of the powerful lure of the possibility of Twelfth Night. Anything can happen; opportunity is in your hands to shape. It is important that Viola is our protagonist in Twelfth Night; her brother Sebastian spends most of the play being inactive, and the floundering Orsino and Olivia are at an unbreakable stalemate until Viola’s action sets things in motion. She is the conductor of the play’s great orchestra, she finds its inner music and allows it to sing.

If you’ve never seen a production of Twelfth Night, I urge you to go and see one. Whether a Shakespeare fanatic or a theatre newby, the experience of watching this play is unlike any other. What will you take away from it? For me, there is simply one lesson to learn from your holiday to Ilyria: ‘Play On’ (1.1, Line 1).

Next week in this series we will be considering Macbeth in performance.


  • Bogdanov, Michael. Shakespeare: The Director’s Cut, Capercaillie Books Limited; 2nd Revised Edition, 2013.

Recommended sources of further Information on Twelfth Night:

Author Karl Falconer

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