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Rehearsing Shakespeare: Twelfth Night 1 - Finding Illyria

‘finding ways to articulate the relationship between love and madness’

It's very title sometimes influences the style of production this play receives. Some directors decide to begin the action as if it were just after Christmas, the melancholic end of the party season with a snow bound landscape, half dead Christmas trees that have shed their needles, and over indulgence hanging like a mist in the air. This type of production will then perhaps proceed to a springtime ending suitable for weddings and happy outcomes lined up for everyone except poor Antonio and Olivia's hapless steward. Time is an elusive concept in this play.The implied time frame can be justified by a line in the final act which states Viola has been with the Duke for three months. But the play has a double time scheme and the whole shape and impetus of the action feels more like three days. And then there are lines like "this is very midsummer madness" and "away before me to sweet beds of flowers", which suggest heat and the passions of high summer and require ironic inflection if spoken in the snow. Both three months and three days are useful in different ways in rehearsals although to assume both are true is hard to reconcile with the work of creating naturalistic backstories for the characters. Three days gives a sense of reckless speed and things happening with a momentum that is out of control, it sits nicely with the idea of events being driven by "midsummer madness". On the other hand when Orsino says of Viola in Act 5 "for these three months this youth hath been with me" you believe it because emotionally so much has happened to so many. The action certainly becomes more believable if that amount of time has passed but then a suspension of disbelief has been required on quite a grand scale and in a variety of ways right from the start. The realism of time and the way Shakespeare manipulates it to dramatic ends is constantly at odds with modern naturalistic tendencies, but the truth is that a double time scheme allows him to have it both ways, creating a feeling of pace and excitement alongside a maturing sense of credibility. Part of preparing to rehearse a play like Twelfth Night is having a strategy for balancing an actors need for a believable and useful backstory with the non-naturalistic stage conventions of the time which Shakespeare, for all his radical departures, fully embraced.

Before setting out to make Illyria, it's worth asking where it is, or was, because it's remarkable how many people still think of it as an imaginary, invented place, whereas it's actually the old name for the country we now know as Croatia. As a director this is worth thinking through because the fundamental question about creating a world for ‘Twelfth Night’ is should that world be fantastical and purely imaginary or should it feel real? An imaginary world I would define as one composed of different elements that would only be found together on a stage, perhaps involving design concepts chosen to highlight perceived themes within the text. A realistic approach would be based on creating a world that has a recognisable social ambience located at some broadly identifiable point in history, with a set of social practises and ethical codes against which behaviour can be measured or explained. Most actors prefer the second of these broad options because real worlds are easier to play than fantastical or "themed" worlds. 

Of course it's not quite as neat as that: even an invented world has to be grounded in some realities because all Shakespeare's plays are, on some level, masterpieces of realistic drama. Besides, a real seeming world need not be an exact copy of any known world, which by definition would make it in some sense imaginary. The meaning of these choices is particularly relevant to ‘Twelfth Night’ because the play seems to exist in some strange space between fantasy and normality, and the decision about the nature of that world will inevitably affect the kind of questions asked in the rehearsal room. You can argue that in a made up world basic points of backstory have little or no relevance beyond the narrative specifics actually mentioned in the text. For example Olivia's father and brother have both recently died and Viola and Sebastian's father had a "mole upon his brow". We must think about these things because they help give shape and texture to the story being told. But if the director was to decide that what was realistic about the play outweighs it's fantastical elements and therefore the best way of serving the text was to root the action in a specific time and place, a whole new category of backstory could be seen as important to inform character and motivation. So not just the fact of her father and brother’s death becomes important in playing Olivia, but also what she thought of them, how much she loved them or how little; the degree to which she is bereft or liberated plainly effects her state of mind and so shapes her attitude to  Orsino, Cesario and Malvolio. Sebastian and Viola were clearly on a voyage from somewhere to somewhere else when their ship was wrecked. Where were they going and why? Does it matter? How much time should be spent in the rehearsal room discussing it? The extent to which speculating over backstory can be valuable or a waste of time is central to a director’s approach - is it possible in this play to identify categories of backstory some of which may be more useful than others? Shakespeare didn't feel the need to tell us either about Olivia's feelings towards her father and brother or the nature of Viola and Sebastian's boat trip: why not? Probably because he realised his audience wouldn't care and certainly didn't need to know in order to enjoy the unfolding plot, but we've already established that maybe Olivia's feelings for her father might be germane to her character, so does anything helpful emerge from speculating why Viola was on a ship off the Croatian coast.

The text tells us the twins come from Messaline which is the old name for the port of Marseille. So they set off on their voyage from the south of France. There is no indication of any strong purpose to their voyage (unlike those shipwrecked in ‘The Tempest’) or the plot would reveal it. The most likely thing we can imagine is two young people on an educational trip, a kind of upper class Grand Tour of the Mediterranean and Adriatic taking in cultural hotspots, probably mainly in Italy, probably intended to climax in Venice, which would explain why they were close to Illyria/Croatia. Illyria certainly wouldn't have been on the schedule as it was regarded as a wild and uncultured place with nothing to offer the young and curious mind reared on the history and language of Greece and Rome. A ship making its way up the Adriatic Sea towards Venice is caught in a sudden storm and breaks up on the dangerous coastline known to the Elizabethans as Illyria. Viola has no idea where she is: "What country, friends, is this?" She gets the answer: "This is Illyria lady". Does she shudder at that reply. Possibly her reaction is one of absolute terror given its reputation as a wild and lawless place, but whatever the degree of her reaction the bottom line is that the audience needs to believe in the necessity of her decision to disguise herself as a man wherever in TIME the director locates the play. In 1600 there's no problem with her decision, but what about a production set now? If the survivors of the wreck look like they are in a world we recognise as our own then surely there's no point to becoming male? How to fix Illyria in time and place? At the time of the Balkan wars of the 1990s it may have been even more dangerous than 1600. In the tourist boom of the 1970s and 80s when it was part of the former Yugoslavia the shipwreck might merely have disturbed a few sunbathers and a serious blow to the head might be the only way of justifying Viola’s desperation to dress as a man. The progress of the play though, demands we believe in her sanity and rationality, her doing her best in a frightening situation. If we simply feel her disguise as a comic stage devise rather than a logical inevitability, the scenes of mistaken identity will never be truly funny. Real comedy is only possible if we believe in the danger of alternatives. It's also true that seeping this play in an over detailed "real" world - Orsino as a nationalist Croatian warlord, Malvolio as a communist party apparatchik - can clog up the veins of the text and stifle its intended meanings offering the audience a constant alternative to the play Shakespeare wrote. So are the reasons for Viola's disguise important? Would a director’s decision to make time and place real have a straitjacket effect on the imagination? Everything that is so truthful about human behaviour in the play cries out against creating a fantastical dream world, and we have to think of Viola's disguise as a reasonable precaution in a precarious situation, yet all the time the plot’s farcical contrivances pull in an opposite direction. 

It may well be that the whole Croatian notion is a complete red herring. Shakespeare probably knew where Illyria was but, almost certainly, had never been there and is unlikely to have known much, if anything, about it. Maybe all he knew was that it was a lot hotter than England. He writes mainly about the manners and behaviour of the race he knew best, the English, whether he sets his story in Windsor or Padua. The name Sir Toby Belch hardly sounds Croatian and everything that happens in the play is suffused with the spirit of Englishness. So why is it, like all his romantic comedies, set abroad? Apart from Volpone, his friend Ben Jonson, set all his comedies in a very realistic and contemporary London. As only mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun,  perhaps Shakespeare was creating a kind of pressure chamber environment in which human interactions are intensified under unfamiliar heat, and a set of broadly familiar English types succumb to a form of midsummer madness? At the heart of the fantastical aspect of ‘Twelfth Night’ is the notion that opposite sex twins if dressed in the same clothes can be so identical in body and voice as to be completely indistinguishable from each other. However, for the comedy to work, the audience have to be easily able to tell which is which or they would be totally confused. So the paradox of the suspension of disbelief demands that what must be obvious to the spectator is unknowable to the characters. This is not a very "real" proposition, yet the emotional life of the play is deeply realistic, perceptive and truthful. Rehearsals will focus on these qualities and, in my experience, finding ways to articulate for an audience the relationship between love and madness. A combination of playing extreme Englishness struggling with extreme heat may work well for this as the characters sweatily stumble towards the fulfilment of their desires simultaneously becoming the victims of those desires. Orsino, tortured by his unreturned love for Olivia, says it: "My desires, like fell and cruel hounds....pursue me." So - finding Illyria too hot to happily handle their greed, passion, deceit, love or ambition and living in a condition of permanent sunstroke may be a way for director and actors to bring realism to an unreal and highly contrived narrative. On the other hand that could be to entirely miss the point that love, and especially the act of falling in love, is one of the few completely inexplicable facts of life; that it is without logic, and so to create an Illyria that is magical and outside the realm of the ordinary, beyond pedantic explanations, can lead an audience closer to the mystery and confusion of what love is. 


Bill Alexander ©


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