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A sunny tale with dark edges

Heather Neill previews a comedy which deals with a selfish brand of love

Twelfth Night

By William Shakespeare

Ludlow Festival

In rep with Cymbeline until July 10. Seminar June 26, 10am. Tickets:

Tel: 01584 872150 (special school rate Wednesdays, 2.30pm)

Michael Bogdanov, directing Twelth Night (in tandem with Cymbeline) for this festival in the castle ruins, finds the popular comedy to be "a very savage piece about narcissism, self-indulgence, cruelty and revenge.

Locking Malvolio up in a dark cell and humiliating his is straight out of Iraq and the abuse of prisoners. You can't help having some sympathy for him no matter what someone has done you don't torture them viciously and humiliate them."

There is no denying that Malvolio is a puritanical spoilsport, but, as Michael Bogdanov points out, the unruly behaviour of the "roistering" Sir Toby isn't a satisfactory alternative. Exploring how to find a balance is, he says, a common theme in Shakespeare.

This is a play about love, but there are few examples of the selfless variety. Viola, shipwrecked in Illyria, disguises herself as a boy to work in the household of Duke Orsino. She falls in love with him but is obliged to woo Olivia, who is mourning her brother, on the duke's behalf. Viola is brave and steadfast, but even she seems to lack perception in her choice: Orsino changes allegiances quickly enough, when he fails to win Olivia and discovers Viola's secret. Olivia, too, having said she will consider no lover for seven years, quickly dotes on the disguised Viola but seems quite satisfied to find herself married to Viola's brother, Sebastian, someone she has only just met. Meanwhile, Sebastian's friend Antonio, who is regarded by Orsino as a pirate, puts himself in grave danger to help his friend, but is abandoned for his pains. He may be the only person in the play who can truly be said to express selfless love.

In the sub-plot, Olivia's uncle Toby marries her maid, Maria. It is she who masterminds the trick played on Malvolio, playing on his self-importance to imply that Olivia is in love with him. Maria, says Michael Bogdanov, "has a vicious streak", while Toby is "a dangerous drunk who uses Sir Andrew as a meal ticket. They're a nasty bunch". So, is there a resolution, a happy ending? Michael Bogdanov believes the characters are in as much of a muddle as ever. "As in a lot of end scenes in Shakespeare where there appear to be reconciliation, there is anything but. The stories could start again."

Viola plays on the name Illyria and its resemblance to Elysium. Michael Bogdanov says that it is not a chance name. "It is a combination of 'illusion' and 'delirium', with 'lyricism' added. It is a place where there is a mixture of emotions, where people are not what they seem."

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