Two twelfths;Set plays;Theatre

21st May 1999 at 01:00
TWELFTH NIGHT. Mold Clwyd Theatre Cymru, until June 5. Tickets: 01352 755114. Newbury Watermill, until June 19. Tickets: 01635 46044.

Director Terry Hands starts the action at Mold literally on Twelfth Night, January 6. "It's an ensemble, Chekhovian piece," he says. "The young characters can't wait for spring to start; the older ones hang on to past revels." Except Malvolio - the steward is an Elizabethan new man on the block, determined the decorations will come down. He's the Roundhead to the drunken Cavalier of Sir Toby Belch, who's all anarchy, cakes and ale, drinking, belching and farting.

Hands says: "The play's about love - as all Shakespeare's plays are, this one overtly. All aspects and all kinds of love are examined." This includesMalvolio's self-love and Orsino's adolescent image of himself, in love with being in love. "The last thing Orsino wants to do is visit Olivia and destroy the picture," says Hands. With the servant Maria there's, "a seedy desperation; she loves Sir Toby so she's not left on the shelf."

Viola shows "the loneliness of thwarted love", for Orsino and love for her brother Sebastian. In their first scenes, Viola and Sebastian talk of each other, weeping over their loss (each is convinced the other is drowned). So Viola decides to be both boy and girl. "It's the problem of puberty, no longer being the somewhat androgynous person you were before."

Feste the professional Fool is poor at jokes - Malvolio reports he was put down by another Fool. What is he good at? "Feste is the only person who tells the truth all the time," says Hands. "He's life-affirming and realises what life is: things grow then die."

For Edward Hall, directing at Newbury, Feste is central. "He's the perceptive philosopher, ironically, who speaks truth, saying Olivia's grief has become a veil she's hiding behind." The play becomes Feste's investigation into breaking the chain of fate in a mansion where order has gone to pot. In Elizabethan terms, the chain of being is broken.

In one wing Olivia's excessive grief over her brother's death has upset good order, leading her uncle, Sir Toby, to resentful bitterness, and making things difficult for Malvolio, who tries to organise matters but finds his mistress keeps contradicting herself. So he makes his big mistake, ordering Olivia's uncle to stop his nocturnal rowdiness.

"Not for a minute would Sir Toby foist the foolish Sir Andrew Aguecheek on the niece he loves," says Hall. Apart from getting his hands on Andrew's money, Toby wants to make a point. "Sir Andrew reflects Olivia's behaving like a child so she's not fit for Duke Orsino."

Elsewhere in the mansion Orsino is diseased with love. He doesn't run his "office" well and courtiers hang idly around. "He's not narcissistic or wishy-washy," says Hall. "He's tough and has a cruel perception of the state he's in." Hall believes Orsino would see Olivia if she'd allow it, but in her absence his love has become a fantasy.

Viola and Sebastian's reunion coupled with the uncertainties of the Viola-Orsino and Sebastian-Olivia love matches at the play's end offers, for Hall, a "beauty and completeness." Each has found the "wrong" yet right partner. There's a false note in the cruel treatment of Malvolio (his threatened revenge means he will kill himself). No wonder Feste's final song is about the wind and rain - the play shows "the elements that make up life. The resolution is not the end, but the start of a new chapter."

Timothy Ramsden

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