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A game of love and madness

Twelfth Night

An all-male cast and performed in Russian... but the story and spirit survive, says Heather Neill

Cheek by Jowl (in association with Chekhov Festival Theatre)

Barbican in London until June 17 and the Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, February 28 - March 3, 2007 as part of the RSC Complete Works festival

Declan Donnellan's Russian production began life in 2003 and has been all over the world, from Moscow to Dublin, Paris to Buenos Aires. The cast is all-male because, he says: "It's interesting to see these plays where there is gender confusion - when the girl who is a boy dresses up again as a boy - in the original conditions. There are shades of meaning you don't see otherwise. There are profound emotional ambivalences which are much more important than sexuality; they go deeper than sexual preference.We wouldn't be doing an all-male version if we didn't know it was written for an all-male company and that is part of the meaning of the play."

Although Donnellan describes his attitude to the text as "pretty biblically fundamentalist," he has made two changes. The production opens with Viola's lines, "I am all the daughters of my father's house And all the brothers too: and yet I know not" to "establish the whole man-dressed-up-as-a-woman thing. And we've moved Malvolio's last line 'I'll be reveng'd on the whole pack of you!' by 10 lines". This gives Malvolio a rather more dignified exit than is usual, but, as Donnellan says, Shakespeare didn't know it but Puritans (of whom Malvolio is one) would soon have their revenge, shutting down the theatre. "There was a final irony with Malvolio. He did have the last laugh, I'm afraid." In this production, Malvolio is treated as a serious suitor to Olivia rather than a buffoon.

The only other change does not include textual rearrangement. Antonio, the friend and helper of Sebastian who mistakes Viola for her brother, is usually left out of the happy resolution at the end of the play; directors often imply that he was in love with Sebastian and is bereft when he marries Olivia. This time he finds a friend because, says Donnellan, "I'm sick of seeing Antonio being chucked off alone. Love's order gets righted in the end."

The theme of the play, Donnellan believes, is the connection between love and madness.

"At the heart of any comedy there is tremendous sadness. Laughter and tears are inseparable. Twelfth Night is about separation, people being separated and mistaking each other. There is no love without separation. There is no love without sadness, because where there is love there is death. Earthly love will come to an end. Twelfth Night is not a morality manual; it's an investigation of human life."

The play is performed in Russian with English surtitles. Donnellan says:

"Things are emotionally communicated below the surface of the language. And that's what moves me - what remains consistently human. As a great writer, Shakespeare knows that words are a clumsy instrument.The story and the spirit are as important as the words. A great writer knows about leaving things unsaid."

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