Rehearsing Shakespeare: Twelfth Night – Music and character
"embracing this imagistic illogicality to illuminate the character and his dilemma"
Why does Shakespeare begin his play with music? Was he tempted to begin with the sound of a storm? Of the productions I've done I began one by reversing the order of the first two scenes. As the auditorium lights faded the sound of crashing waves introduced the image of the bedraggled and soaking survivors of the shipwreck huddled on a beach before Viola's first question to the sailors. But all the others have begun as in the Folio text, with music. The Duke’s first speech feels like a kind of key signature to the whole play: it establishes a tone, a mood to a story that will deal with the torment, confusion and ecstasy of love.
"If music be the food of love, play on,
Give me excess of it that, surfeiting,
The appetite may sicken and so die."
So what we see is a group of musicians playing and one man listening. Now the questions begin. Why do they stop? This is the first beat of interpreting the text. How long have they been playing? Are they exhausted? Has their Duke been demanding a constant flow to feed his mood? Have they simply come to the end of that particular piece and await further instruction? It's as if his words give an answer to a silent question, so does there need to be a look from the leader of the musicians to prove that first line? And if that line is the answer to an enquiring look, isn't the answer strange? He appears to want them to continue playing till he becomes sick of the music and lose his appetite for it. Or is it love itself he wants to lose his appetite for? Or is he hoping that if he grows tired of the music he will grow tired of love? The implication here is that the state of being in love is a torment from which he wants to escape. For the actor playing Orsino establishing this idea is to make the first move in the character’s progress towards self-knowledge, towards making the transition from loving someone who doesn't love him to loving someone who does. It's a small subjective move in terms of character but a massive objective one in terms of narrative. The director, in interpreting this moment needs to be thinking of linking this beginning to the very end when the audience need to believe in Orsino’s love for Viola - a love he wasn't even consciously aware of when he thought her to be a man. If, when we first see him, he seems merely to be wallowing in the masochistic state of the love of being in love, you create a mood of stasis where you need it to be dynamic. His active desire for release from his present state will have energy and create a sense of momentum. The narrative is then being driven by the character. Narrative is character in action.
"That strain again, it had a dying fall."
Does he mean - play that bit again, or, there's that bit again? The clue perhaps lies in the word "had". If he said "has" it would be an explanation for why he wants to hear it again, but "had" implies it is there for a moment and then gone, a thinking that captures the brevity and elusiveness of experience, how you cannot hold on to a moment, however beautiful, without it passing and becoming something else. If the actor plays the line as an instruction to the musician then a pause is needed, either in the middle of the line or at the end. The more obvious choice would be the end of the line so that the instruction is immediately followed by the explanation for the instruction. Entangled with this is when the music, that had stopped before he first spoke, actually starts again. The problem is that the next line is in the past tense.
"O, it came o'er my ear like the sweet sound
That breathes upon a bank of violets,
Stealing and giving odour."
Now it appears as if both instruction and explanation are not completed until the end of this whole thought, and only then should the Duke pause to listen again to the phrase of music he's asked for. In fact, no sooner has he begun to listen than:
"Enough, no more,
T'is not so sweet now as it was before."
His asking for those few bars of music to be repeated is all part of his desire to be so sated with the sound that he is sickened by its sweetness and hence by the associated feelings. The repetition of the word "sweet" allows the actor to express an awareness of this; that the self-imposed aversion therapy is working. There is an oddity within these lines to be confronted and worked through. It is not "sound" that makes you smell the scent of flowers, it is a breeze or sudden gust of wind. The image changes its nature half way through as the "sweet sound" behaves like the wind delivering the "odour" of violets. Nor do you inhale a scent with your ears. Some editors have assumed a misprint in the Folio text here and changed the word "sound" to "south" as in the south wind, but that doesn't really alter the paradox because it is still the ears that do the spelling. It may be that Shakespeare is deliberately mixing the metaphor to emphasise the indulgent sensuality of Orsino's state of mind in which music and the aroma of flowers both become one dual faceted experience. Somehow director and actor need to find a way of embracing this imagistic illogicality to illuminate the character and his dilemma. His obsession with wallowing in the torture of unrequited love is itself illogical: it is damaging and reveals him as a patient needing a cure, one that only mutual, reciprocated love can provide. When the music stops his self-reflection becomes more complex.
"O spirit of love, how quick and fresh art thou
That, notwithstanding thy capacity
Receiveth like the sea, naught enters there,
Of what validity and pitch so e'er,
But falls into abatement and low price
Even in a minute! So full of shapes is fancy
That it alone is high fantastical."
To get further into the head of this tormented man the actor needs to understand how these two sentences are related to each other. Both are statements, but what's the connection? If love, or the "spirit of love", has an infinite capacity to suck up every genuine and deeply felt sentiment that a lover has to offer and then quickly ignores or neglects them, what follows from that? The last sentence of the part of the speech cannot just be further comment or the two thoughts have only an arbitrary relation to one another and Shakespeare is good at avoiding that kind of randomness. It must be a revelation. Orsino is seeing something for the first time, specifically that "fancy" (a derogatory word for love), is like a fantasy or a hallucination. He is demonstrating a capacity to understand the state he has got himself into, is on the verge of thinking it through and lifting himself out of his sickly situation. Sadly, this moment of near insight doesn't survive his re-engagement with himself as the melancholy hero of his own story. To the innocent suggestion of his courtier Curio offered as a distraction from his present mood, which may be tender, exasperated, awkward or just bored:
"Will you go hunt, my Lord?" he can't resist setting up a bitter and self-indulgent joke:
Curio: "The hart."
Orsino: "Why so I do, the noblest that I have.
O, when my eyes did see Olivia first
Methought she purged the air of pestilence;
That instant was I turned into a hart,
And my desires, like fell and cruel hounds,
E'er since pursue me."
He can't keep away from this masochistic self-image, seeing himself as a hunted creature, but the thought is not entirely without an understanding of his condition. At least he doesn't present Olivia as a huntress wounding and tormenting him. His perception has moved on enough for him to recognise that his own desires are the hounds. In performance the actor could dwell long enough on the word "desires" to let the audience feel the Duke has the intellectual muscle to be a combatant in his own inner struggle. To care about him we must do more than merely understand his pain, we need to glimpse his potential route out of it. Helping an audience to care about a character and to sense the possible actions open to them is one of the ways actors engage them in both story and individual. The director is enabling this by always subtly bringing an awareness of that objective into the actor’s subjective identification with their character, remembering the aim of performance in the comfort of rehearsal.
At this point in the first scene a piece of vital internal backstory arrives with the sudden appearance of a second courtier, Valentine, who is returning from a mission to Olivia's household.
Orsino: "How now, what news from her?"
Valentine: "So please my lord, I might not be admitted,
But from her handmaid do return this answer;
The element itself till seven years heat
Shall not behold her face at ample view,
But like a cloistress she will veiled walk
And water once a day her chamber round
With eye offending brine: all this to season
A brother’s dead love, which she would keep fresh
And lasting in her sad remembrance."
This flowery and stilted language has a purpose. The choices around Valentine’s account of his visit and his own attitude to it, depend on the particular backstory you want to give him in respect of his comings and goings to Olivia on behalf of Orsino, especially how many over what period. I think the humour lies in conveying the sense that the messages coming back are becoming increasingly more loaded with a satirical, if not downright sarcastic, attitude to the situation, definitely from Olivia and possibly even Valentine as well. This visit he didn't even get to see the lady herself but had to be content with a message via a servant. She's not going outside for seven years! Meanwhile, she must be thought of as a weeping nun, a permanently veiled recluse! This moment between the two men, courtier and Duke, is funny if we can see that Valentine gets it, (the answer is NO. She's not interested) but Orsino doesn't. If he ever had one, his sense of humour has now gone completely missing. The next beat of the scene is brilliant comedy as, in the classic manner of those in love who can't take "no" for an answer, he simply re-interprets a message that is clear to anyone but himself, and hears only what he wants to hear.
"O, she that hath a heart of that fine frame
To pay this debt of love but to a brother,
How will she love when the rich golden shaft
Hath killed the flock of all affections else
That live in her: when liver, brain and heart,
These sovereign thrones, are all supplied and filled
Her sweet perfections with one self King!
Away before me to sweet beds of flowers,
Love thoughts lie rich when canopied with bowers."
It is so fascinating how Shakespeare gives poetry with more than a flavour of chocolate box romanticism to delusional would be lovers. There is no depth to the thoughts only a kind of gaudy colour. He argues himself into a condition of hope. He persuades himself that she is demonstrating how powerful her capacity for love is if she can lavish this amount of devotion on someone who is not only dead, but only a brother. Showing how the Duke’s mind is working and how both his status and character combine to move the story forward give the actor a dual challenge in this speech, on the one hand to show his apparent inability to read a situation correctly and to take information in entirely the wrong way, but also to convey that he really means it when he implies that his chances have improved, that he genuinely feels more optimistic as a result of the message.
Becoming engaged with a character is about being allowed to follow the movement of their thought in detail, to understand the way they think things through. Our empathy for them then fuses with our own greater objective understanding as spectator of the whole narrative of which they are only a part. It is true that narrative is character in action, but as the character’s individual drives, personalities and desires collide and entangle with the lives of others, it's also true that only we the audience ever see the whole picture. By the end of the first scene of ‘Twelfth Night’ we should have understood Orsino's state of love sickness, but also gained a sense of his ability to understand and, perhaps, conquer it. We should also have seen how it changes in a moment into an emotional blindness that might make a cure impossible. This fluctuation of potential outcomes is what grips an audience with feeling the privilege of a heightened perspective, a sense of the unpredictability of events and hence the excitement of engagement. Good storytelling is linked to enabling your audience to understand enough to care about what happens next and having a view as to what that might be.
Should Curio and Valentine follow the Duke as he sweeps from the stage, or should they hang back slightly to exchange an exasperated look? Or, would you as an actor or director worry they had disobeyed the command "away before me"? It depends on what relationship has already been established between the two of them, and between each of them and Orsino, perhaps there is a rivalry there? But it also connects to the physicality of the scene - how it has been "blocked". There is a temptation to stage it with the love-sick aristocrat lounging on soft cushions or a luxurious sofa, which could be fine, but equally it might suck energy out of the situation. Orsino's mental state is restless and I think his physical state should reflect that. If he is constantly on the move what effect would that have on the two courtiers? To some extent this depends on the design as the power relations between the three men will differ according to the social structures of the chosen period. In a modern dress production they may just be friends for instance, but there will be an effect and capturing the vibrations of that will feed the absorption of the audience. Detail is everything. Good rehearsing is accumulating details without stopping the flow of energy.
The flow of energy between scenes is strongly affected by the amount of stuff on stage, by the elaborateness or simplicity of the design. This is a tricky moment as the story moves from ducal palace to seashore. I have always been drawn to simplicity because I love the sensation created by the last line of a scene being followed almost instantly by the first line of the next and by the overlapping of bodies as one set of characters are replaced in the blink of an eye by another. Having said that set changes can themselves be strikingly enjoyable. It's a difficult trade off as you can't really have it both ways, although the compromise of the actors themselves moving whatever needs to be moved is always available.
Why do I feel so strongly about last and first lines being linked to each other? In this case it's to do with character. Both lines say a lot about the speaker. "Love thoughts lie rich when canopied with bowers." It's a line both indulgent and syrupy that could only come from a man who is in love with the idea of being in love - a cliche, true, but useful. What he's actually saying is 'thinking about being in love is enriched by lying around surrounded by flowers'; he's sees himself as the languid young man lounging on the grass in the painting, a self-image full of narcissism, cloying, self-obsessed and slightly ridiculous. He sees love in theatrical images that star himself as lead actor. Contrast this with Viola's first words: "What country, friends, is this?" Direct, practical, polite and brave, her whole personality resides in line. This is the woman who will show Orsino what love really is.
Bill Alexander ©