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Rehearsing Shakespeare: Twelfth Night - Embracing Elizabethans

'emotional details which have little to do with being Elizabethan and everything to do with being human'

Some directors (and a lot of academics) caution against falling into what they call "the naturalistic fallacy". What they mean is the failure to realise and embrace Shakespeare's habit of shifting styles; his movement from naturalism to high poetic fantasy often within the same scene depending on what he felt appropriate to the dramatic moment, and that this is part of the richness of his work. Those who hold this view would also maintain that a director who is concerned only with making their production as "real" and naturalistic as possible is putting shackles on the writers multi-dimensional imagination: that to be concerned in rehearsal with geographic literalism such that the twins are French because they set sail from Marseilles, that they were on their way to Venice and were wrecked on the coast of Croatia falling prey to the passions of a group of sun-addled Croatians, is all a total imposition on the way the Elizabethans would think. Very few of the comedies of the period show the remotest interest in either geography or anthropological accuracy. This is obviously true but it doesn't invalidate creative discussion about background details that lie outside the scope of the play. The key in the rehearsal room is to extract from the text the background provided and enrich it with the selective imagination of the actors. It about finding backstory that is playable and useful in developing character. This will vary from actor to actor, but sometimes, such as this example from Act 5, it can add depth and richness to vital dramatic moments.

Viola: "My father had a mole upon his brow."

Sebastian: "And so had mine."

Viola: "And died that day when Viola from her birth 

Had numbered thirteen years."

Sebastian: "O, that record is lively in my soul!"

They knew that little birthmark on their father’s forehead so well. Remember the way a small child upon a parents knee will examine every detail of their face, touching, laughing, enquiring. And when their father died at the very moment they were making the awkward transition from childhood to the beginnings of adulthood how profoundly were they thrown upon each other's love and how much this present moment means when for three months they had believed each other dead. The mole and the death are in the text but the meaning for them both needs to be embroidered and made real in the rehearsal room. Emotional details like this have little to do with being Elizabethan and everything to do with being human. So where does worrying about a specific historical mindset come into it? Imagine a modern dress production and focus on the things in the text that are totally bound in to the period in which it was written. Is the dissonance destructive, creative or irrelevant? Take Fabian's reference to bear baiting. He says Malvolio "brought me out of favour with my lady about a bear-baiting here." What would the backstory to this be and how should the actor be thinking about this incident when saying the line? If there's no answer to that then obviously you could simply cut it but what about Elizabethan attitudes to madness? They were radically different to ours: we don't live in a world where someone thought to be mad can quite legitimately be  locked in a dark room and chained to the wall. Our societies are not run by Dukes with the absolute power of a despot in matters of life and death. Ethical assumptions about virginity and marriage are profoundly different. A modern day Viola would go to the consulate not the palace, and wouldn't find it necessary to dress as a man in the first place. Duelling doesn't exist now so what kind of challenge is Sir Andrew meant to be making to Cesario? Class, social etiquette, servants, fools and much else all have changed significance since 1600. Does any of this really matter? Do the themes and stories in the play emerge clearer and with less strain if it is set in or close to the period in which it was composed and in a modern dress production does the cultural disparity between the way people look and the way they behave and speak weaken the narrative? Can you solve this tension by bringing to the stage a world that is boldly eclectic, one that floats free of period and in which anything and everything can happen?

It matters because however you do it the one thing you cannot change is the intensity of the actions. What they do to Malvolio is truly terrible. Orsino does posses absolute and intimidating power. Sex is shockingly unthinkable if it happens outside religiously sanctified marriage. Sir Andrew is utterly terrified he may be killed. To turn a blind eye to these things is to fatally weaken the emotional fabric of the play and undermine the essence of the comedy by ignoring the potential for tragedy. Comedy and tragedy are twins, they are identical until the lens of perception alters them. 

Maria tells Feste, who as a paid Fool in an aristocratic household has no modern equivalent, that he risks being hung for being absent without leave. Now it's true that in Elizabethan society hanging your in house comedian was thankfully rare, but there are many references to whippings and other exotic punishments. I would always encourage the actor playing Feste to have good reasons for risking such treatment. The world in which ‘Twelfth Night’ was first performed was a place in which visits to the madhouse to laugh at the insane, trips to the bear pit to watch animals being tortured, feasting on meat pies during a public hanging, applauding the whipping of a prostitute tied to the back of a cart or gaping while a thief had his ears cut off were normal pass times competing with the theatre as forms of public entertainment. Whatever you do with the play, you can't extract this brutal and bitter essence from the text and narrative; make it modern but embrace the Elizabethan. 

Bill Alexander ©

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