A night of making merry
For director Lee Beagley Twelfth Night is "a whirl of farcical whirligig", romantic and absurd comedy plus adventure. "It's about the nature of celebration and jokes going too far; when does a joke become a prank, a practical joke, a trick or treat?" he says. In a comic spirit characters are constantly improvising, making split-second decisions, competing and capping each other with even funnier replies.
The play's opposed forces are Malvolio and Sir Toby Belch, whom Beagley likens to the enemies in his recent production of Euripides' The Bacchae, the sober, practical King Pentheus and the wild god Dionysus.
Malvolio the Steward "is very lonely but at least he is being serious about the situation where two heads of the house have died. Someone has to do the shopping, pay the rent in life," Beagley continues. In many productions the Steward is laughable when he appears in a nightgown to quieten the revellers, but Beagley sympathises. "When you've a job to do, it's no fun being woken at four in the morning. He's more use to Olivia than Sir Toby, who'd marry her off to Sir Andrew so he could maintain power in the house. But Malvolio is locked in a puritanical world, someone who gives himself the hardest time and psychologically inflicts this upon others."
Beagley thinks Malvolio's vanity can be overplayed, with Olivia's accusation that he is "sick of self-love" being more a comment on her Steward's momentary mood than an overall moral statement by Shakespeare. Key to Malvolio is his cry, full of pathos, "she called me fellow", the first time anybody has seemed to value him. This, it seems, causes an explosion in him, turning him into a monster. Sir Toby uses drink and merriment to hide the miseries of life. "He's alive to life but you wish he'd stop his joking. You feel like saying 'This joke finished an hour ago'".
Beagley sets Feste the Clown apart, "He's not the same as Lear's Fool but on the way", a commentator who initiates very little himself, he's always being summoned and reacting to others. "He is far more philosophical than Toby or Malvolio, trying to warn them they're out of order. Commenting on a world of fools, he effectively says, 'You have the audacity to call me a Fool!'. "
In this world, Beagley points out, two women gain or keep their independence. Viola's male disguise gives her freedom and she learns she can control her life and does not have to make instant decisions. Olivia is a kind of virgin queen (was this play premiered at Christmas before Elizabeth I?) who has independent wealth through two family deaths, but will lose it when she marries. "Doubtless many men want her wealth. Orsino loves her, but is vain and unable to conceive that she will resist if he continues his pursuit. He is not used to being denied.
"Shakespeare's maturity shows in the play's ending. This is no happy ever after - the wind and the rain will come, but that's no reason not to catch at happiness when it's offered."
Liverpool Everyman February 17 to March 21. Tickets 0151 709 4776. Touring to Brighton, Wolverhampton,Manchester, Burnley and Horsham