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Rehearsing Shakespeare: Twelfth Night - Sea Captain

'Behind every line of Shakespeare there has to be an intention on the part of the speaker'

"What country, friends, is this?" Friends? Who are they? Survivors of the wreck presumably. Are they all sailors? Were Viola and Sebastian the only passengers? It's rare for most productions (outside of drama schools, the RSC and the National Theatre) to have the resources to put a big cast on stage in a Shakespeare production. You won't often see a performance of this play where a dozen or so courtiers and servants follow Orsino off stage at the end of scene one to be replaced by a similar size group entering as the crew and passengers of the wrecked ship. In fact you'd be lucky to see anyone else besides the Sea Captain who is the only person to speak to Viola in the scene. With clever doubling you can do ‘Twelfth Night’ with 12 actors, which doesn't really allow for a group of other survivors. I've never minded about this because in a strange way the presence of silent others would make it harder to stage. Apart from the obvious problem of visual distraction it would be hard for a curious audience to not speculate about how many might have drowned besides Viola's brother. It means, of course, that the actor playing Viola will say "friend", and the use of the singular actually intensifies the relationship right from the start. She is alone with this man in a place she doesn't know having just experienced a terrifying ordeal and quite possibly lost her twin brother to the sea. The stress the actor lays on that word "friend" will begin to colour their interpretation of the character. It might almost be a question within a question as if she is saying 'you are my friend aren't you?" Or endowing him with that designation, prompting him cautiously into that role. Or maybe it is far more casual. Here talking backstory in the early stages of rehearsing the scene must be helpful as her whole attitude to the Captain will depend on how well she has got to know him on the voyage. The text doesn't help on that point and the two actors need to agree: they might have barely spoken until this moment or they might already be quite at ease in each other's company, even have become friendly. Why does she ask this question at this precise moment? What motivates her and what does it tell us about her? It can't be casual; we have to receive the sense that the answer is vitally important as a guide to how she will move forward. It implies the rational and thoughtful mind of a practical person who will plan carefully and make the best of her situation, but who first needs to know more about what exactly that situation is, how safe she is. That's just one way of looking at it. She might be seen as a messed up grief traumatised drama queen who has become completely deranged as a result of being suddenly and violently separated from her twin brother and conceives the mad idea of dressing as a man and selling herself to the local aristocracy as a eunuch with a great voice. Honesty in acting Shakespeare requires an acknowledgement that two radically different options such as the above, which could be multiplied hundreds of times, are best subjected to the evidence in the text before acting choices are made. What should always be resisted is to skim quickly through the text, write the character you'd like to play in your head, then go back and read the text again looking for supporting evidence.

Behind every line of Shakespeare there has to be an intention on the part of the speaker, what is sometimes called an "action". This intention chosen by the actor on their interpretation of the textual evidence is what gives both energy and clarity to the thought. Focusing on how and why a thought is forming itself into language is the only way to avoid generalisation and acquire specific intent. In rehearsals I've always tried to convince actors that it's more important the audience know what they are thinking than what they are feeling; to be engaged with the argument so their own emotional intelligence and experience breeds a personal empathy for the character’s situation.

"This is Illyria, lady." Whatever inflection the actor gives to his reply it turns out that the Captain is actually an Illyrian, born and bred only a short distance from the very place where his boat has just been wrecked. This turns out to be fortuitous! But before Viola finds this out, the name triggers a brief outburst of grief and hope.

"And what should I do in Illyria?

My brother he is in Elysium.

Perchance he is not drowned: what think you, sailors?"

Now this simple line raises a very simple point about cutting. If there are other, silent, sailors on stage there's no problem, but if the Captain is on his own you obviously have to make the word singular and have Viola say "sailor." This might seem very trivial but it isn't. The line "what think you, sailor?" sounds odd - even mildly comic. To replace with "friend" is possible but the repetition of that word doesn't seem natural. To substitute "captain" is a choice, but may weaken the power of the word when it appears a little later at a key moment of plot development. Assuming just the two of them I think it's best she says "What think you?" I know this sounds like pointless nit picking but I'm only trying to illustrate that every single word counts and every second matters. There is a huge difference in tone and meaning depending on the scene being between just Viola and the Sea Captain or between Viola and a group of soaking sailors only one of whom speaks. Every page of Shakespeare will have at least one of these minor textual dilemmas for the director to work through, and the tiny cuts are as important as the big cuts you might, or might not make. 

Captain: "It is perchance that you yourself were saved."

Viola: "O my poor brother! And so perchance may he be."

Captain: "True madam, and to comfort you with chance,

Assure yourself, after our ship did split,

When you and those poor number saved with you

Hung on our driving boat, I saw your brother,

Most provident in peril, bind himself

(Courage and hope both teaching him the practice)

To a strong mast that lived upon the sea;

Where like Arion on the dolphins back,

I saw him hold acquaintance with the waves

So long as I could see."

So there were other passengers, and a few survived, but not all. Sebastian may have been one of the lucky ones; at least he was last seen alive. It is never any good telling an actor that the reason a character is making a speech is to convey plot, even if that is part of the reason. In this case providing the Sea Captain with both a personality and a reason for speaking besides giving  hope to a distressed woman, is intimately tied up with the two distinct meanings of the word "perchance". It could mean either "perhaps" or "by chance". When Viola first uses the word it means the former. Then the Captain uses it in its other sense, and finally Viola uses it in a way that could mean either or both. This shared word play indicates a shared sense of humour and therefore empathy between them. Even if the audience is unaware of the words double meaning, they can be made aware of an emerging warmth between the two characters that is leading one to give comfort to the other. For the narrative it’s important that we understand there's a chance that Viola’s brother is still alive. More significantly from the character’s point of view she needs the vestige of hope being offered her in order to credibly draw on her reserves of courage and practicality. Without us knowing she has the image in her head of her living brother battling to survive, it would be much harder to accept her subsequent actions. So in the above speech we need to see the Captain actively instilling hope in order to encourage qualities he has already seen in her. Consequently she finds in him a man she can trust to help her, not exploit her, and that together they can develop a plan. We are witnessing narrative develop from characters in action.

Creating this scene in the rehearsal room as one where two people discover each other is much more dramatic and alive if the backstory is minimal - they were acquainted but no more. If the actors minds are filled with an elaborate and detailed backstory the text cannot then do the work. Unplayable backstory is useless, it undermines the excitement of watching people change each other and create each other moment by moment. In other relationships in other plays it can of course be a different story. Iago's background with his wife Emilia is worth creating in detail; even if it doesn't all find its way into full revelation in performance it will feed the complexity of their marriage and give depth to everything that passes between them on stage. And Macbeth and his wife need to agree about their child. And the actor playing Sir Andrew must vividly recall being adored. This encouraging or discouraging the imagining of the ghost world outside the text is a directorial skill  that is elusive but vital.

Viola's next line always causes a lot of rehearsal room debate.

Viola: "For saying so, there's gold."

Does she have a purse strapped to her waist, hidden under a skirt, tucked into the front of her dress, or lying on the ground near by? Does she take it from an item of her luggage that has been washed ashore, remove a ring from her finger or take a chain from around her neck? Why does she pay him in the first place simply for telling her something it would have been wrong to withhold? Is it patronising on her part to assume he would want payment for telling the truth? Should the Sea Captain accept the gold? If he doesn't will he seem churlish? Will he appear unpleasantly mercenary if he keeps it? Whether he refuses or returns it how is that moment to be physically negotiated as there are no words to accompany any action? These and many other questions can be asked about this small but important interaction. The decision about how to play this moment will depend as much upon the design as on the characters, but whatever the period design the Sea Captain is a character wide open to various interpretations. For instance, why assume he is a decent and good man? Could he be played as devious, an opportunist telling a traumatised young girl what she wants to hear to advantage himself. Such a man wouldn't hesitate to take the money. Perhaps he made up the story of Sebastian tying himself to a mast, or had read something similar in a novel? Her brother might have survived the storm anyway.  Again the issue might seem trivial but it raises two important points about a strong characteristic of Shakespeare's writing. First, he is always internally consistent about characters speaking the truth. Everything the Captain says about Olivia and Orsino in the next section is proved to be true, so what he says about Sebastian and the "strong mast" must also be true. Second Viola makes a favourable character assessment of him and the unfolding events prove her to be a good judge of character. Here is the dialogue in which she first hears about the two people whose lives become excruciatingly entwined with her own.

Viola: "Mine own escape unfoldeth to my hope,

Whereto thy speech serves for authority, 

The like of him. Know'st thou this country?"

Captain: Ay, madam, well, for I was bred and born

Not three hours travel from this very place."

Viola: "Who governs here?"

Captain: "A noble Duke, in nature as in name."

Viola: "What is his name?"

Captain: "Orsino."

Viola: "Orsino! I have heard my father name him.

He was a bachelor then."

Captain: "And so is now, or was so very late.

For but a month ago I went from hence,

And then 'twas fresh in murmur (as you know,

What great ones do, the less will prattle of)

That he did seek the love of fair Olivia."

Viola:"What's she?"

Captain: "A virtuous maid, the daughter of a count

That died some twelve month since; then leaving her

In the protection of his son, her brother,

Who shortly also died; for whose dear love 

(They say) she hath abjur'd the company 

And sight of men."

Viola: "O that I served that lady,

And might not be delivered to the world,

Till I had made mine own occasion mellow,

What my estate is."

Captain: "That were hard to compass,

Because she will admit no kind of suit,

No, not the Duke's."

Viola: "There is a fair behaviour in thee Captain;

And though that nature with a beauteous wall

Doth oft close in pollution, yet of thee

I will believe thou hast a mind that suits

With this thy fair and outward character."

When she delivers this assessment of the Sea Captain's character they have been in conversation for only a few minutes. Even if director and actors have created a little bit of a backstory between them, this is still a big intimate jump for Viola to make. It shows an extremely confident person displaying an astuteness of judgement or the canniness to flatter by endowment. The little we've seen of her so far indicates someone composed and insightful. In the terms under how Shakespearean psychology works her estimation of this man is bound to be correct, even if as moderns it doesn't automatically satisfy us. But if Shakespeare was up to anything else, for example writing a scene in which a gullible, naive young girl is duped by a con artist, he would let us know. On this principle, which is consistent through all his plays, it would be misguided and confusing to play the Sea Captain as anything other than an honest and decent man. However this doesn't mean that in rehearsals it's pointless to dig deeper and invent more than was intended. Viola’s attitude may contain elements of the flatterer’s art as well composure and intelligence and the Captain text doesn't prevent the playing of an interest and attraction that grows the more he talks: and whatever the backstory they are bonded by both having survived a catastrophic experience. Returning to the subject of honesty there is an interesting comparison here with Othello, where it would be dramatically meaningless to watch the way in which Iago works on his victim if it was unclear whether he was telling the truth or not about Cassio and Desdemona. Here the liar works as a dramatic figure because he has told us, the audience, that's what he is - we are therefore involved and complicit in a way we could never be with the good captain. In the second scene of ‘Twelfth Night’ being at ease with the Sea Captain as a truth teller is also vital for narrative clarity, the pure story telling of the scene. We need to take in very clearly in a very short time background information that is essential for our enjoyment of what is to come, so we shouldn't be worrying about whether the person supplying all this information is telling the truth or not. We learn that Orsino loves Olivia, who has no father or brother because both have recently died. This narrative emphasis on her vulnerability and the absence of a protective male family member is an important component of the chaotic situation around her featuring three male figures all totally inadequate for the role of protector! For the actor playing Olivia falling in love with Cesario becomes a great deal more understandable if her household males are Toby and Malvolio and her hopeful suitors Andrew and Orsino. 



The conversation between the Captain and Viola, which sets up so much of the plot of the play, concludes with the most crucial element of all, Viola's disguise.

Viola: "I prithee (and I'll pay thee bounteously)

Conceal me what I am, and be my aid

For such disguise as haply shall become

The form of my intent. I'll serve this duke:

Thou shalt present me as an eunuch to him.

It may be worth thy pains; for I can sing,

And speak to him in many sorts of music,

That will allow me very worth his service.

What else may hap, to time I will commit; 

Only shape thou thy silence to my wit."

Captain: "Be you his eunuch and you mute I'll be:

When my tongue blabs, then let mine eyes not see."

Viola: "I thank thee. Lead me on."

The subject of payment has not been dropped, Viola continues to offer money on top of the earlier gold. Does this imply it was accepted or not? Anyway, that offer was for a service already delivered, this negotiation is an invitation to enter into a conspiracy of deception with her against the leader of the country for reward, and is something on a completely different level. She is suggesting that the Captain introduces and recommends her to the court while concealing her true identity. This is criminal and not without risk. Does the line "it may be worth thy pains" imply a reaction that needs appeasing? A look of shock countered by the reminder of reward. Such moments are good to find because they help keep the silent listener active and help to drive the speakers need to speak. It also would force Viola to elaborate on her idea and carries the implication that she'll be such a fine singing eunuch that her friend will bathe in reflected glory - it invites him further in' to join her in an adventure from which he'll benefit, that the risk he'll be taking is worth it. Whether you consider the plan utterly mad depends almost entirely on the period setting. It wouldn't have been a completely crazy idea in the context of Croatia circa 1600. Set in 2020 you have to ask yourself if you can ever apply realistic motivation and logic to this kind of material. But nothing alters the fact that actors need to know why their character is doing something. However you contextualise it socially or historically Viola’s choice has to be connected, through the acting, to perceived threat that is dangerously real for that individual in that moment. And the Sea Captains choice to do what she asks has to be connected, through the acting, to a warmth of feeling and an admiration for this young woman that would make you long to see their next scene together. He certainly needs a sense of humour - even if he does think her idea might be due to a blow to the head - and he shows it with his last line:

"Be you his eunuch and your mute I'll be,

When my tongue blabs, then let my eyes not see."

As Viola never has to prove how good a singer she is, but operates for the rest of the play purely in the role of glorified page boy, there is a temptation to change "eunuch" to "page". The price to be paid would be to entirely lose the Captain’s joke; his only joke! The joke is he is saying "you be without balls and I'll be without tongue". It's a very black joke and if you look it up in the notes of any edition of the play you will learn that the reference here is to the Turkish Court at a time when eunuchs were employed as harem guards, and mutes were their subordinates; silent servants who had had their tongues removed lest they give away state secrets. This "joke" of the captains has of course passed beyond comprehension, but whether you cut it or not it has a use. It's a reminder that under the comedy of this play (perhaps under all comedy) there is a darkness, there is a fear that drives the actions of these two people, and, as I've said before, if you ignore it or skim over it, or say it doesn't matter, the acting will never be truthful - nor ever funny.

In the rehearsal room (and this can't be repeated too often) you have to engage with the contradictions between the world the text was born in and the world you are creating on stage with whatever level of modernity. Even if the dissonance is insoluble, confronting it pays off because it takes you deeper into the text and playing solutions will be found and interesting ideas will surface that might not otherwise have been thought of. But if a director takes the view that none of this matters and the audience won't care anyway, you'll get a performance that (however good to look at) skips superficially over the surface of the language, producing only a generalised effect where the words lack root, purpose and meaning. 

Bill Alexander ©





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