Saturday, 1 June 2013

Week Six, Part One - Shakespeare's Twelfth Night at the Folger Shakespeare Library

1st June - Twelfth Night at the Folger Shakespeare Library

The venue of Washington’s other Shakespeare outlet has a much more authentic feel than the Sidney Harman Hall of the Shakespeare Theatre Company. Mock-Tudor exposed beams on white walls, Elizabethan-looking wooden pillars, interesting and delightfully antiquarian wooden seats and a dark, grungy atmosphere give it a real Renaissance feel. The low-level lighting is a little overdone on the balcony though, to the extent that the programme was impossible to read at my seat. Perhaps partly out of annoyance at this unnecessary inconvenience it got me thinking about what we really mean by authenticity: for me, and probably most of the audience, this dim and dismal auditorium seemed the height of authenticity but, of course, Shakespeare’s globe was roofless. At 2 pm on a sunny Saturday afternoon, Shakespeare’s audience would certainly not have been groping around in darkness at the Globe. Shakespeare’s company did eventually purchase an all-weather theatre when they were sufficiently successful, and the Folger could be a replica of that for all I know, but if so they really need to advertise the fact a little more prominently. I could be wrong, but I think dim-lighting is simply somebody’s idea of how a Shakespearean theatre should look. The Folger is much, much smaller than the Sidney Harman Hall, which again adds some inauthentic authenticity (the Globe could apparently hold upwards of 2,500 spectators). More importantly it also makes for a more intimate atmosphere, which the director has attenuated by having the cast occasionally exit the stage via the orchestra.

The setting of the play in 1915, with a Belle Époque atmosphere was a good choice (if original an inspired choice, but the play fits the period so well that I suspect it has been done a few times before). The story of shipwreck fits snuggly with the period of some of our most famous shipwrecks (the Titanic and the Lusitania). And the plot of disguise and love would suit any Wodehouse comedy equally well. Where I think this production was almost certainly original, and usually very successful, was the musical accompaniment. There was a piano on stage, providing an understated cinematic soundtrack throughout, but the periods of song were wonderful. ‘Daisy’ fitted the play perfectly.

The storm was beautifully done, though it was almost too elegant for a comedy. The balletic movement of the siblings, behind a translucent voile curtain would have been dramatic in a play with more emotional depth (e.g. The Tempest) but it hit a slightly discordant note in this lightest of comedies. Likewise, occasionally the piano accompaniment was over-gloomy. One of the most discordant scenes was so beautiful that I’ve accepted it anyway: at one point the Fool is singing to Orsino whilst Viola plays the cello. In some ways it was wasted in a comedy, but this was the most beautiful scene of the play.

One thing that happens here, which I thought perhaps reflected me but actually the audience reaction seemed to support my point – Shakespeare comedies are not, in themselves, especially funny. I’m quite ready to entertain the notion that they were hilarious when they were first produced and they remain excellent light romances, but there are very few pieces of dialogue that make one laugh. This was borne out by the audience reaction. There was plenty of laughter, but most of it came from aspects added by the cast and director – the facial expressions, the outfits, the slapstick, and the sub-verbal noises. Much of this might have been there in the original, but in the original I presume the dialogue raised a few more laughs too. It seems then that the challenge for a modern production of a Shakespeare comedy is to insert humour around the dialogue. This production does that well, but then it begs the question – why did I come to see a production of a Shakespeare comedy, if the funniest bits are those added by the moderns? Wouldn’t the same plot, but with a total rewrite by a gifted modern comic script-writer be superior? I would never dare to ask such a question of a Shakespearean tragedy, but comedy really doesn’t travel well – across time or space.

With that in mind the success or failure of a Shakespeare comedy is heavily reliant, perhaps over-reliant, on the quality of the actors. In this case, the Fool and Toby Belch were played perfectly, but Ague-cheek was simply mildly irritating. The biggest drawback was almost fatal though. Malvolio is the key role which holds the rest together. In the last version I saw, by the RSC in Stratford-upon-Avon, Malvolio was played by John Lithgow. Lithgow is one of my favourite comedic actors and he didn’t disappoint as Malvolio, but that has perhaps ruined me, because I shouldn’t expect others to reach those heights. And this Malvolio doesn’t, though he got plenty of laughs from the rest of the audience, so it might just be me being unfair.

Twelfth Night is a good reminder of the predictability of modern rom-com plots, in which the eventual lovers meet in the first five minutes, we all know they will end up together, and the entire film is a succession of obstacles we know they will overcome. Presumably such simplistic plots are what modern audiences want, but Twelfth Night does remind us that even light-hearted love stories can carry some depth and complexity.

On a final note, this was an interesting follow-up to Coriolanus, which in some ways supports the anti-democratic reading of that tragedy. Perhaps because Coriolanus had already put such thoughts in my mind, I couldn’t help thinking that the play’s unredeemed victim, Malvolio, was really being punished because he dared to dream above his station. I suspect that a modern comedy dealing with similar themes would have the poor man, not the Aristocratic men, get the girl. But Shakespeare’s audience, including its fair share of commoners, was apparently quite happy to see one of their own ridiculed, and for their social betters to achieve their happy endings. It’s interesting to note that Malvolio’s most famous lines (‘some are born great, some…’) are today usually used admiringly to describe how anybody can achieve great things in a democratic society. But for Malvolio it is a sign of his absurdity. Of course, Malvolio is more than just a social climber – he’s also one of those play-hating puritans.

No comments:

Post a Comment