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He Didn’t Say Play On What, But I Still Think It’s A Marvelous Idea

A good rule for art and life is: do what you love. Other people may appreciate or not appreciate what you do, but at least you’ll know why you did it.

It’s a rule Des McAnuff clearly followed in his music-stuffed production of Twelfth Night. And, speaking for myself, he was playing my tune.

The production reconceives Twelfth Night as a jukebox musical. Feste, the jester (played by Ben Carlson), spends much of the play singing, and usually these songs are, if not tossed off, treated as bits of business, with the exception of the lovely “Wind and the Rain” that closes the play. But McAnuff turns them into full-fledged production numbers, backed by a complete rock ensemble with guitars, bass, piano, rhythm, horns and everything. Some songs get extended, and one gets added – Act II begins with the power chords that open the Velvet Underground’s song, “Sweet Jane,” but these turn out to be the opening chords to a rocking setting of Marlowe’s “The Passionate Shepherd To His Love” and an abbreviated “Nymph’s Reply.” The tunes, written by McAnuff and composer Michael Roth, are uniformly singable and in some cases downright beautiful – I’d highlight in particular “O Mistress Mine” and “Come Away Death,” though my son’s favorites were the mad Beach Boys-referencing version of “Hold Thy Peace” and the Motown-inflected “Jolly Robin.”

But they aren’t just good songs – they structure an entirely new thread of narrative that I’ve never seen explored before. One of the key conceits of McAnuff’s production is that Feste, the jester, is also in love with Olivia (played by Sara Topham). Now, a sincere and mutual affection between the two is a necessity, but I’ve always understood her affection for Feste to be related to the fact that he was a favorite of her father’s – he’s a living connection to the recently-dead men of her life who so haunt her that she’s driven to seclusion. I’ve never seen their relationship interpreted in a romantic fashion, but upon reflection it makes perfect sense. Every available man in the drama, after all, is in love with Olivia: Orsino (Mike Shara), Aguecheek (Stephen Ouimette), Malvolio (Tom Rooney), and when he finally shows up, Sebastian (Trent Pardy). Why wouldn’t Feste be under her spell as well?

And if he loves her (unrequitedly, of course; her plain affection for him never crosses over into actual love), then there’s a whole other dimension to their interactions, to his songs, even to his involvement in Malvolio’s torment.

When he returns to Olivia’s court, she has him dismissed. Why? Well, she’s annoyed that he left in the first place. Why? Well, because he brings her comfort. But why did he leave? Well, to earn a bit more money at Orsino’s court. Or perhaps because he can’t bear to be around her mourning all the time. But these are shallow reasons compared with a need to take himself away from a woman who will not be comforted by him the way he wants to comfort her. Not to mention that hanging around Orsino might actually comfort him; here’s a rich, powerful, young, handsome Duke, and he’s in no better shape love-wise than Feste. Feste’s antipathy to Cesario (Viola, played by Andrea Runge, in disguise) is sharpened as well if he understands “him” not as a woman in disguise (that’s one way to play it) but as a successful rival suitor. And Malvolio’s contempt for him is offensive enough without the dimension of romantic rivalry, but that additional motive for revenge certainly doesn’t hurt.

More interesting, though, is what that additional dimension does to the song Feste sings as he approaches Malvolio in prison:

Hey, Robin, jolly Robin,
Tell me how thy lady does.
My lady is unkind, perdy.
Alas, why is she so?
She loves another —

The song is intercut in the text by Malvolio’s cries of “Fool!” and “Fool, I say!” – and one way to understand the song is that it is more torture of Malvolio, because, of course, he’s the jolly Robin, whose lady is unkind (unkind enough to throw him in prison). But if Feste is in the same position as Malvolio – if she’s unkind to him as well, inasmuch as she loves another – then his treatment of Malvolio is more poignant. On the one hand, he’s meting out a punishment to him that he wishes he could visit upon Olivia for not recognizing that his love, Feste’s love, is the deepest of all; on the other hand, he sympathizes with poor Malvolio even as he torments him, because the worst of Malvolio’s torment isn’t being shut in darkness and taken for a madman but in knowing that his lady loves another, and that’s a torment the two share. The staging of this scene in McAnuff’s production emphasizes this point of solidarity, as Malvolio shifts from interrupting – “Fool! Fool, I say!” – to, resignedly, singing along with Feste.

It’s a very fecund conceit. And the use of popular music also harmonizes well with the way love works in this play. Twelfth Night, along with A Midsummer Night’s Dream, is one of Shakespeare’s great paeans to love’s shallowness. Taming of the Shrew is a great love story because it’s a tale of two people who discover, to their mutual surprise, that they are a perfect match for one another. Ditto with Beatrice and Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing. In both plays, the well-matched lovers who bicker are contrasted with shallow lovers who appear more conventional but for whose unions we have much more misgivings. As You Like It might well be called, “School for Lovers” – at the multiple wedding at the close Rosalind gives us a whole typology. The romances in Two Gentlemen of Verona and The Merchant of Venice leave us very nervous about the possibility of a successful marriage, and the title of Love’s Labour’s Lost says it all about that play.

But Dream and Twelfth Night portray love as absurd and shallow, but still something to be treasured. The lovers in Dream are rearranged by mischievous spirits. We can hardly believe in the constancy of affection after that, but we don’t really wish it otherwise, because those same spirits give us to remarkable romance of Titania and the ass-headed Bottom, and we wouldn’t give that up for anything. It’s killing yourself for love, as Pyramus and Thisbe do, that’s laughably absurd. The lovers in Twelfth Night, meanwhile, love for the shallowest reasons possible. Olivia loves Cesario, so far as we can tell, because he’s the first man she’s ever met who doesn’t fawn over her. This lets her open up enough to actually look at him (actually, her) – and she falls so in love with his visage (which is all anyone ever talks about Olivia as having – no one praises her character; they all talk about her face) that, when she finds out she has actually wed Cesario/Viola’s twin brother, he seems perfectly satisfied with the outcome. Orsino hasn’t even had the opportunity to see Olivia’s face since she went into seclusion, and still he’s besotted with it – he’s in love with the report of her beauty. And Viola herself loves Orsino pretty much at first sight, and again, talks entirely about his face and complexion. We’re very far from Rosalind and Celia’s loves in As You Like It, both of which are plainly shaped by an imaginative sympathy with their beloveds as well as an instant physical attraction. We’re not even in the world of Romeo and Juliet where two young people make an instant and electric personal connection, and then try to live their brief lives in such a way as to justify that moment. The symbol of love in Twelfth Night would seem to be those divers schedules Olivia promises to make of her beauty.

But it’s not: it’s the song, the popular love song that is one of the shallowest and deepest art forms around, the song that makes you feel deep emotions by setting  words we all know to tunes we can all sing. The songs we associate with moments of love are never the most complex or interesting. That should tell us something. It certainly seems to have told McAnuff.

* * *

That’s the big conceit of the show, the popular love song as emblem of how love confuses the categories of depth and shallowness. But the show is stuffed with little conceits, many of them highly successful but not all of them winning critical favor.

McAnuff gets knocked sometimes for being the kind of director who lets his own notions obscure the text, and I’ve found that sometimes to be true, but not in last year’s As You Like It and not in this year’s Twelfth Night. Rather, what I felt was sometimes the case in this production was that he had notions that made extremely clever visual connections with the text, but whose execution made it harder for the text to be heard. If what you’re trying to do is communicate certain emotions, tell the story effectively, I think McAnuff’s antics were, on the whole extremely successful. But if your goal is to have the text do that communicating, and tell the story primarily that way, then not so much.

Contrast, for example, the way McAnuff handles Act II Scene 3 (“Hold Thy Peace”) versus how he handles Act II Scene 5 (Malvolio finds the letter).

The former takes place in a kitchen where Sir Toby Belch (Brian Dennehy) and Sir Andrew Aguecheek have retired after a night of carousing. Our visual field is dominated by an open refrigerator hovering over the center of the stage. The scene is full of business – “Hold Thy Piece” becoming a full fledged rock number being one bit, but also a bit of comic business with a toaster, and the arrival of a pizza in the middle of a conversation (delivered, it appears, by John Lennon – I should mention that the band, which doubles as much of Orsino’s court, are dressed like figures out of popular music from the 1960s and 1970s). All of this works wonderfully to establish the world we’re in; when you get back from a late night of carousing, why, you would order a pizza, wouldn’t you? And interrupting Malvolio’s tirades with the delivery of said pizza is funny – and appropriately funny; it’s a synecdoche for the entire scene. But while it supports the scene, it does take our ear away from the text.

Act II Scene 5, on the other hand, has almost no set. Just a letter, on pink paper, downstage. There’s physical comedy as Toby, Aguecheek and Fabian (the always-elegant Juan Chioran) maneuver to avoid being seen by Malvolio, and of course Tom Rooney plays his own body in perfect time (his slow-spreading smile, as he reads the letter’s instruction to do so always in his beloved’s presence, alone is worth the price of a ticket). But none of this distracts us from the words themselves.

Now, if you’re a purist, the second scene is the better scene. You don’t do Shakespeare unless you want the text to speak. But I’m not a purist. There will, I trust, be many more Twelfth Nights in years to come, and they will each take a different approach to these two scenes. What I note is that both scenes worked: both were hilariously funny, and both were true to what was going on in the scene. One worked primarily through the text; the other used the text as a prop, and focused on communicating the scene through a variety of means. And that’s just fine with me.

McAnuff can get away with doing so many different things with his play because he’s got such a capable cast to work with, a cast that really is at home with the text, and can work with it even when all kinds of madness is swirling around them. There’s not a member of the cast who doesn’t do excellent work, but I want to highlight a few performances in particular.

First, Sara Topham as Olivia. She is, without question, the best Olivia I’ve seen. I really do think that last year’s turn as Tourvel was a breakthrough for her; both as Olivia and as Celiménè in The Misanthrope, but also in the recent Earnest remount in New York, she communicated a depth and sincerity that I haven’t experienced before with her. She’s doing less and delivering more than she ever has. I really hope she continues on this path.

I’ve already praised Tom Rooney’s performance in the letter-discovery scene, but I want to make that praise more general. Rooney delivers a Malvolio that I haven’t quite ever seen before, and that’s a Malvolio who remains firmly in possession of his dignity while in prison, who never gives in to despair – who never completely becomes a figure of fun. I’ve seen a number of fine Malvolios – Peter Donaldson’s in particular – but none of them have kept me with the man all the way through the play.

I feel like excellent Aguecheeks are almost to be expected at Stratford; the role is just so naturally funny. But I still feel Stephen Ouimette needs to be called out for perfect comic timing. Trent Pardy, meanwhile, makes a whole play out of a role – Sebastian – that I’m not sure I’ve really even noticed before. And Mike Shara makes a forceful Orsino who retains just enough of the actor’s trademark goofiness for us to believe that Viola’s love for him just might be based on something more than his pretty face.

Andrea Runge, meanwhile, had the unfortunate experience of having to bow out of the show not long before opening for health reasons. She was back in by the time I saw the show, and I certainly couldn’t find any rough edges from the late insertion of a new Viola. But this is not one of those Twelfth Nights where Viola dominates the production. Precisely because of the musical conceit, Olivia – the woman all these songs are about, after all – rises in stature in this production, and that rise is at Viola’s expense. It’s not the star turn that her Rosalind was last year, but it’s a solid performance – at least when she’s in trousers. (I continue to wonder whether she can perform as well in a dress – both in As You Like It and this year in Twelfth Night her game rose noticeably as soon as she shed her woman’s weeds. We’ll see whether we get another instance next year; they haven’t yet cast Imogen, so far as I know.)

Finally, Ben Carlson. His Feste is a very interesting specimen: a ham and a scene-stealer who also harbors a kind of contempt of his audience. I’m talking about Feste here, not Carlson; the audience I’m referring to is people like Orsino and Sir Toby, not us folks out in the darkened seats. We’re drawn to Carlson’s Feste – we can’t not be; he’s the lead singer on all the numbers – but we don’t exactly like what we find when we get there. This isn’t a criticism – I thought this was the most interesting and nuanced Feste I’ve seen since William Hutt’s. But it is unusual, if nothing else, for Feste to seem colder, and frankly less sympathetic, than Malvolio – at the start of the play, not at the end – which was the case with this production.

* * *

And, with this post, I finally finish my roundup of the current Stratford season. Which means I can get on to writing about the amazing theatre I saw this past weekend in Chicago!

about the author

Noah Millman, senior editor, is an opinion journalist, critic, screenwriter, and filmmaker who joined The American Conservative in 2012. Prior to joining TAC, he was a regular blogger at The American Scene. Millman’s work has also appeared in The New York Times Book Review, The Week, Politico, First Things, Commentary, and on The Economist’s online blogs. He lives in Brooklyn.

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