Darkness visible

2nd December 2005 at 00:00
Long shadows fall over this touring production of Twelfth Night, says Heather Neill.

Twelfth Night. By William Shakespeare. Royal Shakespeare Company In Newcastle until tomorrow (0870 9055060), then at Novello Theatre, London, December 8-31 (0870 950 0940).

Tel: RSC Education, 01789 296655

The dark notes in this comedy are frequently acknowledged: Olivia's brother is dead, Viola believes she has lost her brother to the sea and Feste the clown sings of death.

For director Michael Boyd "there are different kinds of death in the play. The old world of Twelfth Night - that inhabited by Toby and Olivia - is moribund. She is understandably trapped in mourning and is not in a position to change things. He is resourceful but drunk and ludicrous, heading nowhere fast. Malvolio's suggestions for change don't ring true.

There is a religious divide, Protestant and Catholic, a whiff of the Civil War to come. Olivia is the inheritor of the world of Shakespeare's father's generation and is not ready forthe new."

Boyd points out that Olivia is "given a telling off by Feste, a warning about her mortality early in the play. Shakespeare is addressing so many - the Earl of Southampton, Queen Elizabeth - on the subject of marriage and chastity. She is the arbiter of the play, her household is the largest in Illyria and she stands between Orsino and Feste, holding the scales of justice. But she needs to be infected by the same madness as everyone else in the play, to lose herself in folly (by falling in love with CaesarioViola). Then, becoming human, she can be a good ruler."

Orsino, who is often written off as vain and self-obsessed, is an example, says Boyd, of "quite a sexy Renaissance tradition of melancholic love, but his household is in disarray as he focuses on the moon of Olivia. He falls in love with Caesario before he discovers she's a woman. As far as we can see, he's not used to falling in love with men and his feelings don't find full expression at this point."

Boyd believes Shakespeare had to be circumspect about criticising Puritanism in the character of Malvolio. "He couldn't afford to be explicit and we should keep an open mind whether he as author was sharing in the destruction of a destructive character with Feste and the others."

The blindness and vulnerability of Malvolio is made particularly clear in this production as "darkness" onstage is broad daylight for the audience.

Viola and Sebastian, "miraculously twinned, miraculously survived"

represent the only viable agents for change in Illyria. Even so, at the end, Malvolio is declaring revenge, Sir Toby is not reformed, "there is disharmony between Toby and Andrew and Feste is left on his own.

Shakespeare is defending his art in Feste, playing a questioning role at court and epitomising the loneliness inherent in the life of the artist. In the end Feste, the artist, is on his own, defiant, contemplating mortality."

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