Perhaps my disappointment this morning was inevitable. Virginia Woolf observed, after seeing an Old Vic production of Twelfth Night: “The fault may lie partly with Shakespeare. It is easier to act his comedy than his poetry, one may suppose, for when he wrote as a poet he was apt to write too quick for the human tongue. The prodigality of his metaphors can be flashed over by the eye, but the speaking voice falters in the middle. Hence the comedy was too out of proportion to the rest.”
This was certainly the case when E. and I took in Twelfth Night at the Colorado Shakespeare Festival last night. It was played in the giant courtyard called the Marry Rippon outdoor theater. Half the lights were out (there was a plaintive announcement about this early on — they’ve got the money to fix the lights, but they’ll need to be sent away — that just made us root for the actors all the more). Like a number of directors do, Director Philip Sneed chose to open with the shipwreck rather than “If music be the food of love,” and it was instantly clear, from, “What country, friend, is this?” that this was going to be a production that tried as exhaustively as possible to make the text and the action understandable to the audience: words enunciated precisely, words changed when they weren’t clear (‘sardines’ for ‘pilchards’, ‘learn’ for ‘con’) and long sentences trimmed. There was miming and big gesturing, every opportunity for physical comedy dealt out to the last card (should we mishear Fabian’s slow, shouted “you will hang like an icicle on a Dutchman’s beard” the actress helpfully drew her hand down sir Toby’s face and came to a point, whereupon he shivered). This can be a good thing, and there was a side of Shakespeare who would have spat his wine laughing at the good fun of it, but for all the dramaturg’s talk of “Appolonian-Dionysian dichotomies” in the program note, it was a strikingly one-sided production. Dionysus ran unopposed.
Let me stress that a production of Twelfth Night without buffoonery and silliness is really no production at all, but the play is not a farce. While it’s clearly not Titus it’s not Comedy of Errors either. Shakespeare took great pains break the comedy’s fall with some real pathos. Sebastian and Viola have lost one another and presume the other dead. If you dispatch with this grief quickly (and most directors do) then you at least need to address the darker side of Malvolio’s humiliation. In every production I’ve seen up until now, the imprisoning of Malvolio in the dark house and his subsequent promise of revenge has been played as a sobering tonic — the audience’s sympathies are headed that way anyway and so a shrewd production will lean that way with them. See also Shylock’s misfortune, Caliban’s poetical descriptions of the island, etc. Shakespeare is notorious for humanizing his comedy villains. That’s what keeps the audience on its toes, keeps the moral texture of the play complex, stops it from degenerating into bear-baiting. We may hate them or laugh at them but they are multidimensional nonetheless, possessed of organs, senses, dimensions, affections, passions. They bleed. And this turns the finger back at us, and it’s one of the many reasons we feel ourselves drawn to the plays time and again: we keep learning things about ourselves, how easily and foolishly we can react, the wages of laughter. “Pleasure will be paid,” as Feste puts it. But Malvolio at the Colorado Shakespeare festival remained a laughing stock from the moment he entered to the moment he romped away. Some of this fault can be laid on an oversensitive audience, or on Tim McCracken’s performance, which played the comedy of the garters and stockings so flouncingly we weren’t later able to see him as real, no matter what paints he put into it. But it’s also the fault of Jake Walker’s Feste, who hams before the gate of the dark house, leaping back and forth in front of it and spinning on his heel so that the audience can barely see past him to get any sense of the torment inside. I might have widened window in Malvolio’s prison, shown some squalor.
Unlike some of the other comedies, Twelfth Night doesn’t begin in a sane world and descend into chaos. Illyria is a carnival place from the start (hence the title: a Twelfth Night is a feast of fools, an up-is-down festival of madness celebrated on January 6th, twelve drummers drumming, etc.). But pure foolishness has nothing to tell us, and so Shakespeare has carefully seeded reminders of a different kind of life throughout the story. See the songs: from “What is love?”: “‘Tis not hereafter: … youth’s a stuff will not endure.” or take the song “Come away, come away death,” which Orsino uses to indulge his self-pity. Most Orsinos are right to play it for laughs (as Geoffrey Kent in his excellent performance does here), but it is a dark song. Antonio’s capture is fraught, or should be for Antonio, as indeed is much of the revelry that so delights us from Toby and Sir Andrew (no bullet can pierce the heart like Sir Andrew’s “I was adored once,” in the right place, to paraphrase Virginia Woolf).
The character of Feste especially is a trickster of some darkness. He empties everyone’s purse, arrives and goes in his own time, and like a lot of Shakespeare’s fools he tells truth to power. His job to take us out of ourselves, yes, but then to return us to the reality of our own worlds, delighted but perhaps wiser. See his last song. The rain rains every day, even in Illyria. His is not an easy part: there should be shrewdness there, worldliness, and an equal pleasure in inflecting chaos and in saying sooth, sometimes doing one by doing the other. There is a lot to be picky about in the film transition Trevor Nunn’s staging of Twelfth Night in 1996, but his casting of Ben Kingsley as Feste was inspired. Kingsley’s Feste knows something you do not, and there are a hundred things more important to him than making you laugh. Last night, Jake Walker’s fool wanted only to make me laugh, and he leapt and shimmied and jearked himself around the stage in hopes of it. Pretty frequently, the audience rewarded him. Maybe his performance didn’t begin this way, maybe it evolved this way over the course of the month (we’re near the end of the run). But even sweet dishes can be too sweet, and the best laughs come as a break in tension, a relief. If we want something more than laughter, we’ll need a little vinegar.