Set play

13th April 2001 at 01:00
TWELFTH NIGHT. Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon.

"This is Illyria, lady." Every director of Twelfth Night must respond to the sea captain's statement, so matter-of-fact and yet so haunting. What kind of place is Illyria?

Director Lindsay Posner, about to open his new production on Stratford's main stage, finds a curiosity in the difference between how it is popularly imagined and what Shakespeare actually wrote. He argues that Illyria is usually thought of as a fantasy romance world, a strange land where everything is upside down.

"But," says Posner, "when you look at the text you find that it presents a very psychologically realistic world. It's filled with all kinds of social detail, like the great bed of Ware. Shakespeare has created a very English place, but it's a fantasy England."

Posner, therefore, rejects the notion of setting his production in Elizabethan times. "That would be inauthentic. That's heritage Shakespeare." His Illyria is Edwardian England, a place that has many suggestive links with the play. He sees it as a very hierarchical society that harks back to the traditional conservative value system of the Victorians. "It's built on an empire that enables Orsino and Olivia to indulge their obsessions. It's a world of great households - just the kind of place where you find a Malvolio."

Posner also stresses that the Edwardian period was the twilight period before the First World War. I calls to mind Shaw's Heartbreak House, a leisured society where the elite had little to do but fall in love with each other. "But although it seems a secure and happy world, underneath it is nervy and unsettled. The two outsiders, Viola and Sebastian, who enter this enclosed, self-centred world, provoke radical questioning of love and identity, especially sexual identity."

Posner is sharply alert to the ambivalence of the play's subtitle. He argues that while Twelfth Night sounds festive, What you will suggests something more complex and troubling. He sees that disturbing quality in the characters. "Malvolio is a lonely, retentive man with pathetic delusions. Yes, he is cruelly treated and you feel sorry for him, but he is a deeply unpleasant character. It's the same with Toby Belch. He's often thought of as a jolly Falstaff figure, but he's really an angry alcoholic. There's a dark side to him, and he ends up a broken man."

Stratford's main stage has been remodelled for the 2001 season, extending its width and thrusting out into the auditorium. Posner relishes the challenge of directing this "domestic play" on such an epic setting. He is confident that the economy of style that has marked all his productions will create an intimacy with the audience. "That's because the focus will be directly upon the actors and upon Shakespeare's language."

Rex Gibson

Twelfth Night runs until October 12. Tel: 01789 403403

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