Comedy in disguise

5th November 2004 at 00:00
A new production of Twelfth Night reveals the modernity inherent in the characters' shipwrecked lives. Timothy Ramsden reports

Twelfth Night By William Shakespeare Bristol Old Vic Until November 20 Tel: 0117 987 7877

Shakespeare's title suggests both festivities and their impending end, a mix of light and dark which relates to the play's position in his writing. David Farr, directing Twelfth Night in Bristol, calls it the "last 'proper' comedy, written at the same time as more difficult plays and just preceding the tragedies".

The idea of Sir Toby Belch literally blowing his own trumpet might seem unusual, but Farr sees him as a jazz-player who never made the grade back in the 1970s. It's a double clue to where his Bristol production places Shakespeare's Illyria. Modern, but also a place retreating from the mainstream modernity represented by the twins Viola and Sebastian.

Though they are the ones shipwrecked and separated on Illyria's shore, Farr believes it is the home-based characters who are marooned amid their own lives. "People's lives are thwarted, there's an enormous sense of disappointment." This gives the play a Chekhovian quality. People live in their private compartments - Orsino, Olivia; at Bristol, even Sebastian's helper Antonio is given a fisherman's hut.

This sense is increased by playing Feste in his mid sixties. He "was Olivia's father's Fool, his best days are now over and he's been on a three-day bender. Sir Toby calls him 'sot', which is moving applied to an old man." Farr points out the sadness of Feste's song "O Mistress Mine".

Sir Toby himself is 60, Sir Andrew a few years younger. These older people have loved and lost, but will not give up; there's a Dylan Thomas feel of raging against the dying of the light. Even Orsino and Olivia, in their mid thirties, have a sense that soon they will have missed out on experiences.

In this world, Viola and Sebastian stand out by their youth, like gap-year students amid this older society.

The shadow of Olivia's dead father and brother lies across her household, which has once been more prosperous and populated. Her servant Maria is kept busy with work once managed by several hands. She is educated (she can write a letter that passes for Olivia's) and bright.

It is the tricked puritan steward Malvolio who comes closest to tragedy.

Farr sees in him elements defying the comic mood, with "a real malcontent's drama round the corner" - signs of the more cynical comedies others contributed to Jacobean theatre. Farr imagines Malvolio carrying out his declared revenge through achieving wealth and returning to buy up Olivia's land. Then the party really would be over.

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