"Many productions of Twelfth Night emphasise the comedy," says Andrew Hilton, director of Bristol's nationally acclaimed company, Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory. "But my approach is to take it seriously. For comedy to work, you have to take it seriously anyway."
After a long and distinguished career as an actor and director, Hilton formed the company in 1999. It is dedicated to performing large-cast professional productions of Shakespeare in a small studio theatre in a reclaimed factory.
"Twelfth Night has its own theatrical traditions, which you have to deal with," he says. "The play's about much more than just the box-hedge scene. We see it as the last of Shakespeare's summer comedies, and in some ways the most problematic. It deals with love across a huge spectrum, and Shakespeare refuses to resolve it with the corporate harmony of, say, A Midsummer Night's Dream. In Twelfth Night, love is chaotic, a dangerous form of madness. The play grapples seriously with emotional truth and pain."
Understanding the play's social fabric, Hilton says, is crucial. "What did it mean when an Elizabethan woman, like Olivia, was suddenly catapulted into a position of enormous power - in a household where men predominated? What did it mean to be such a lady's steward? Elizabethan audiences understood. We try to reclaim that understanding."
This year, the company is also offering school workshops in characterisation and direction, using the company's actors. Students get a chance to interrogate individual characters in a given play - and to direct. "We try to convey that all the action is already written into the play," says Tom Sherman, workshops co-ordinator and company actor. "Every action on stage is a reaction to the text. So, first we read the scene blandly, then we ask students to think about what clues are in the text, and get us to act it more authentically. We'll cover any play, and any stage from Year 9 upwards."
"Studying a Shakespeare play is a bit like pulling the engine apart to see how it works," says Hilton. "I hope this production will put the play together again - and tell the story, truthfully, in a simple and uncluttered way."
The Winter's Tale at Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory ends tomorrow. Twelfth Night, March 21 to April 27. Tickets: 0117 902 0344. School matinees: March 27, April 18 and 25, all tickets pound;7. Workshops offered throughout the south-west. Education enquiries: 0117 963 5065.