Commentary: The 39th anniversary of a ‘Twelfth Night’ classic

Peter Gill

Peter Gill

The ‘Twelfth Night’ you will probably never see

Peter Gill’s Royal Shakespeare Company production of ‘Twelfth Night’ opened on August 22, 1974 at Stratford-upon-Avon: 39 years later audiences are still finding it hard to accept the play as a strange and erotic masterpiece

By Wayne Myers

Promoted as a “sexual musical,” the nudity-filled Let My People Come, featuring ribald songs such as The Cunnilingus Champion of Company C, a parody of the Andrews Sisters’ 1941 hit The Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy of Company B, opened at the Regent Theatre in London’s West End on August 19, 1974.

But the real erotic heat was in Stratford-upon-Avon, where three nights later on August 22, 1974, the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) production of Twelfth Night opened under the direction of Peter Gill.

In 1969, John Barton had directed a Chekhovian Twelfth Night for the RSC, and many who had seen it felt that Shakespeare’s broody, autumnal and bittersweet masterwork had finally found its fullest expression.  But some who had seen Gill’s staging were having second thoughts about that assessment.

Peter Ansorge, in his October 1974 review of the production for Plays and Players, noted how Gill had been “rebuked in some quarters for his reading of the play.”  But Gill wasn’t doing anything Shakespeare already hadn’t.  All Gill did was to focus on the least-explored aspect of the play’s theme of “doubleness” — sexuality.  Gill, Ansorge wrote, didn’t impose a “theory of sexual ambiguity on Twelfth Night, he has brought the theme movingly out into the open from the original text.”

Why did some react so angrily to this sexual Twelfth Night? Some of that anger may have come from what Shakespeare was suggesting about human sexuality, and the realization that the play was not what they always thought it was.  (No such acute hostility was directed at Ingmar Bergman, when in July 1975 at the Royal Dramatic Theatre in Stockholm, Sweden he staged his own erotic version of the play.  Bergman cast his Viola well with Bibi Andersson, who as Alma in Bergman’s 1966 film Persona related a sexual encounter on a remote beach in a scene that film critic Pauline Kael in her 1982 book 5001 Nights at the Movies called “one of the rare truly erotic sequences in movie history.”

In my 2008 interview with Shakespeare Theatre Company Artistic Director Michael Kahn, he called Twelfth Night a “profound investigation of love.” And that includes sexual love — which is what Bergman’s production emphasized.

Gill’s staging revealed Twelfth Night as the gateway play to Shakespeare’s sexually-darkest plays: Troilus and Cressida, Othello, Measure for Measure — with its depiction of a sex-saturated, venereal disease-ridden Vienna (a thinly-veiled stand-in for Shakespeare’s London) — and All’s Well That Ends Well.

The play is also part of an unbroken (depending on how you date Timon of Athens) string of masterworks ranging from Hamlet to Antony and Cleopatra.  Yet it’s too often treated as an early Shakespeare comedy. This is the common error many directors make when staging Twelfth Night, assuming Shakespeare is innocently re-using the cross-dressing heroine device he deployed earlier in three plays, The Two Gentlemen of Verona, The Merchant of Venice and As You Like It.  In Twelfth Night, however, it’s put to its most sophisticated and brazen use — and a streak of sexual deviousness courses through the play as a result.

Shakespeare’s evil genius here is that Viola does not have total control over her Cesario persona. When she carelessly (or calculatedly) expresses her femininity, the outcome is sexual chaos. If, for example, she impulsively kisses Orsino in Act 2, Scene 4, as she did in Manhattan’s Sonnet Repertory’s 2010 production, she is seen by Orsino — and everyone else — as doing so as a man!  This is what Ansorge refers to as the “erotic trap” of the play.

At the center of Gill’s staging was Jane Lapotaire’s sexually disruptive Viola.  In his review, Ansorge wrote that Lapotaire was “the perfect androgyne, loved by Orsino (knowingly) as a boy, and by Olivia (at first unknowingly) as a girl.”

“This Viola,” he continued, “accepts the double nature of her sexuality — yielding to Orsino’s embraces as a page boy, even wanting to satisfy Olivia as a woman.  Indeed both Jane Lapotaire as Viola and Mary Rutherford’s Olivia are the aggressors in their relationships (at one point they turn angry sterile circles of frustration on a darkening stage).  It’s Orsino and Robert Lloyd’s Sebastian who are more feminine, passive receivers of love (the latter weeps more tears on Antonio’s shoulders than ever did this Viola on her Captain’s after their shipwreck).  With the arrival of the twin Sebastian, Orsino and Olivia’s pleasure is complete. In the final moments, Orsino grabs Sebastian by mistake to take to bed before realizing that Viola is his actual bride-to-be. Equally, Olivia is clearly delighted at the prospect of a ménage-a-quartre: doubleness adds piquancy to desire.”

Shakespeare’s sophisticated court audiences would have loved this. Sex was major entertainment for the Elizabethans — even with venereal diseases rampant — and Shakespeare was a very sexual writer, celebrating the whores of London’s brothel-crammed Bankside with characters such as Mistress Quickly (or “Quick Lay”), from Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2 and Henry V, Doll Tearsheet from Henry IV, Part 2 and Mistress Overdone from Measure for Measure.

The 21st century for Twelfth Night really began on the night of August 22, 1974 — yet Gill’s staging did not immediately change the way the play was performed.  The Chekhovian version remained, at least in the United Kingdom, the preference for many critics and theatergoers in the ensuing years. Things only took a hard sexual turn in the U.K. after 2000, even as Sam Mendes (who directed the 2012 James Bond film Skyfall) staged a Chekhovian Twelfth Night — part of a double bill with Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya at the Donmar Warehouse in 2002 — as a valedictory marking the end of his tenure as the Donmar’s artistic director.

It also was a valedictory for the Chekhovian Twelfth Night.

In 2011, Peter Hall directed his version for the National Theatre with his daughter Rebecca Hall (Woody Allen’s Vicky Cristina Barcelona) playing Viola.  This marked Hall’s fourth production of the play — and his 1958 Shakespeare Memorial Theatre Caroline-dress production was regarded as launching the wave of “autumnal” Twelfth Nights. But he never saw the play as sexual, and for many critics who reviewed his 2011 production (including the Financial Times’s Sarah Hemmings) this was no longer acceptable.  As a result, many felt that Rebecca Hall’s talents were squandered.

Twelfth Night, or What You Will (many directors often treat the “What You Will” part of the play’s double title as a throw-away, which is a mistake: That part of the title contains insight as to what happens in the play, with “will” meaning “desire,” as in “sexual desire”) is a much mor
e bizarre and disturbing play than many realize.  But that doesn’t stop director after director, abetted by critics and bloggers, from turning the play that director Neil Bartlett in a 2007 interview with Positive Nation magazine called “one of the queerest, most outrageous plays ever written” into a sex-and-romance averse, family-friendly comedy — especially in the United States and Canada.

The first Twelfth Night likely to be seen on this side of the Atlantic is one in which the director stages the play as a farce or “frothy” comedy.  Farcical versions of the play are inevitably filled with gags and gimmicks.  (A gimmick is a device that operates at the expense of the play and whose sole purpose is to “wow” an audience).

The “time period gimmick” is extremely popular for directors. In this instance, the play is set in a time period and location intended to make the play “funny” or “entertaining.”  It might be The Old West (Olivia was a whorehouse madam and the saloon was called Duke’s in the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s 2011 production).  Or perhaps even Brooklyn in the 1970s.  The Sacramento Shakespeare Festival’s 2013 Twelfth Night was set during the disco era. (The Sacramento News & Review’s Kel Munger described the production as a “giggle fest.”)  Lavina Jadhwani’s 2013 production for the Oak Park Festival Theatre transplanted the action to a Southern California beach in the early 1960s, evoking beach party films such as Muscle Beach Party and How to Stuff a Wild Bikini.  Cast members threw beach balls out into the audience.

Gimmicks can also become the setting for specific scenes, such as a steam room in Des McAnuff’s 1992 staging at California’s La Jolla Playhouse. (McAnuff, who directed the Tony Award-winning Jersey Boys on Broadway, apparently loved this gimmick so much he used it again in his 2011 Stratford Shakespeare Festival production, with Brian Dennehy as Sir Toby Belch.)  The Vancouver, B.C.-based Bard on the Beach also set a scene in a steam room at the “What You Will Hotel and Spa” in its 2013 production, warning playgoers on its website that “The play contains partial nudity. The tone is playful, not prurient, and a bare female back and bare male buttocks will be glimpsed.”

In some cases, the play is forced to fit the gimmick, such as the pool in Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s 2009 version.  Kris Vire in his April 12, 2009 review of the production for Time Out Chicago wrote: “[Josie] Rourke’s Twelfth Night suggests its storm by flooding the center of CST’s courtyard stage; amid flashes of lightning, a silhouetted Viola (Michelle Beck) is dunked from the sky to crawl upon the shore — here a series of wooden decks descending into the water that designer Lucy Osborne extends into an enormous framing heart.”

“That’s the only time the tank makes narrative sense,” Vire wrote. “For the next three hours, the citizens of Illyria wade and splash… It’s a visually appealing gimmick, but gimmickry nonetheless.”

Gag-and-gimmick Twelfth Nights are also usually filled with one or more of the play’s common clichés: A lust-crazed Olivia; a bloated, aged Sir Toby Belch; a decrepit Malvolio; and the worst cliché, a Viola with a mustache. (Bard on the Beach and the Folger Shakespeare Theatre are among the more recent productions showing Viola sporting a mustache.)

The effect of an audience’s repeated exposure to gag-and-gimmick, cliché-ridden Twelfth Nights is to misrepresent what the play is actually about. Members of the new generation of arts writers who don’t think through what they write aren’t of much help, either.

In her April 30, 2013, Washington Post feature story on the Folger Shakespeare Theatre’s production of the play, Jessica Goldstein called the gag-loaded Amanda Bynes comedy She’s the Man — a (very) loose adaptation of Twelfth Night — a “cinematic masterpiece.”  Worse, Goldstein (who in her LinkedIn profile describes herself as the Post’s arts and style writer and backstage columnist) wrote that she couldn’t understand why Robert Richmond, the Folger production’s director, didn’t cite the film as inspiration for his own staging.

The best Twelfth Night directors — even if they miss the play’s eroticism — use design and setting to capture the play’s strangeness and fantastical elements.  In 2009, Bonnie J. Monte staged a frosty fantasy version for the New Jersey Shakespeare Theatre, with a polished cobalt blue set floor that conjured a deep woods frozen pond, walls of white confetti that suggested cocoanut flakes and shaved white chocolate, and a snowy-white divan with icicle-like fringes.  In Philadelphia in 2010, the Curio Theatre Company’s Liz Carlson transported the audience to a Jules Vernesque universe with her steampunk Twelfth Night, while Shakespeare Santa Cruz Artistic Director Marco Barricelli mounted a Burtonesque veersion in 2012. In March 2013, the Washington, D.C.-based Taffety Punk Theatre Company presented an undersea-fantasy Twelfth Night. “The play takes place in the time it takes Viola to drown — or not drown, as the case may be,” said director Michelle Shupe in a Taffety Punk press release. Whether or not Viola survived the shipwreck was left open until the production’s final seconds.

And what of the play’s supposed happy ending? With the possible exception of The Comedy of Errors, Shakespeare never wrote an outright “happy” ending for any of his plays, and may have achieved the perfect ambiguous play ending — unsentimental yet extremely poignant — with Twelfth Night.  As the play ends, the concerned couples are only just beginning to grasp the consequences of Viola’s cross-dressing. They also find that they now possess an unsettling sexual self-awareness that they lacked at the play’s beginning.  It’s a very different world they are now facing from the one they were in at the play’s beginning!

In the meanwhile, there will always be an audience for gag-and-gimmick Twelfth Nights. Those who desire to see such productions can probably find one in major metropolitan areas throughout the year

There is also a growing audience for erotic Twelfth Nights, but those productions will remain hard to find. In 2010, Insurgo Theater Movement staged the play as part of its Erotic Shakespeare series at the Erotic Heritage Museum in Las Vegas.  John Beane, who directed the production, called the play “already specifically erotic,” and if his staging was not as sophisticated as Gill’s or as sensuous as Bergman’s it was at least played in the spirit of how Shakespeare wrote it. The Arc Theatre in Ridgefield Park in Evanston staged a production of the play earlier this month in which Chicago Reader critic Zac Thompson noted displayed “sexual fluidity,” —even if he felt that director Mark Boergers’s “abrupt return to hetero norms at the end feels like a loss of directorial nerve…”

Pittsburgh’s Steel City Shakespeare Center will launch its inaugural season this fall with Twelfth Night, and it will be interesting to see what approach to the play it takes. (Many theater companies inaugurate new theaters or mark special occasions with the play, imagining that it’s a festive play.  It isn’t.)

In September, the Atlanta Shakespeare Company will stage a Twelfth Night/Troilus and Cressida double-bill at the New American Shakespeare Tavern in Atlanta.  This makes thematic sense (unlike the Mark Rylance Richard III/Twelfth Night double-bill that will open on Broadway in October), for they are Shakespeare’s most sophisticated plays.  Twelfth Night is also Shakespeare’s most erotic play, and Troilus and Cressida, with the possible exception of Othello, his most sexual.  Troilus and Cressida was likely written immediately after Twelfth Night. (The double bill, however, will not likely be as successful if the sexual themes in both plays are ignored.)

Today, Gill’s name is unlikely to come up as often as Barton’s in discussions about Twelfth Night. Gill was not a part of Guardian theater critic Michael Billington’s 1988 roundtable on the play, the outcome of which was the book Directors’ Shakespeare: Approaches to Twelfth Night.

But it was Gill who 39 years ago tonight on August 22, 1974 — called into question much of what many theatergoers and critics thought they knew about Twelfth Night, or What You Will.