Michael Pennington first directed Twelfth Night for the English Stage Company in 1991. After an English tour, it went to Tokyo, Chicago, and Seoul. He was then invited to direct a production of the play in Japanese at The Tokyo Globe in 1993, and for the Chicago Shakespeare Theatre in 1995. A User's Guide draws on his close study of the play as director, and is enriched by his long experience of Shakespeare as an actor. In Tokyo with the Haiyuza company he was keen to look at Twelfth Night through a Japanese lens, but determined to avoid "a sort of tourist Kabuki". He saw his Japanese cast triumph in the play, and the British Ambassador weep at the reunion of Viola and Sebastian. He describes the way Shakespeare can work, mysteriously, in translation: "the deep groundswell of Shakespeare's music - his astounding sense of counterpoint and the absolute authority of his spirit - is filling a room in which what he actually wrote remains unheard." For Chicago he chose an American viewpoint and setting- "more Edith Wharton than Scott Fitzgerald". Video auditioning proved surprisingly successful and he records his pleasure in the actors' performances, though still experiencing the director's search for the impossible: "Same old bind - I want Japanese and American energies together with the lovely benefits of English nuance". Serious discussion with his cast followed his suggestion that they should vary traditional comic business by substituting a fart for Sir Toby's burp over the pickled herrings. Risking it, they were rewarded when Mayor Daley came to the play and laughed like a drain.
His scene-by-scene commentary on the text is detailed and illuminating. He sees the play as the most complex of Shakespeare's comedies: "difficult to cast, difficult to direct and especially difficult to design." These accounts are as rewarding as his exploration of the text, knowledgeable and wide ranging, full of insights and surprises, and wonderfully readable.
This splendid guide follows Pennington's 1996 User's Guide to Hamlet and deserves to be as successful.