One of my favourite childhood narrative arcs was that of the desirable man falling in love with the heroine in very unlikely circumstances. Examples:
- Jane Eyre: rich man with a predilection for society beauties loves poor governess with no connections
- Pride and Prejudice: rich man who doesn’t like anyone loves poorish woman with sharp wit and paradigmatically irritating mother
- Tamora Pierce’s Song of the Lioness series: prince falls in love with girl who previously was pretending to be a boy
- Never Been Kissed (starring Drew Barrymore and that guy from Alias): handsome, kind high school teacher falls in love with talented student (errrrr) which turns out to be okay because she is actually an adult investigative journalist masquerading as a high school student (yes, a bit weird, I grant you)
This is of course because I had no idea about how to go about recommending myself as a love-object to anyone, and was therefore tragically beholden to the idea that no matter how much society or fate or the weather had it in for you, ‘the right one’ would see through your ugly clothes/lack of personal hygiene/dearth of interesting conversation/ability to converse with animals in your head/coarse curtain of hair to THE TRUE YOU, the one which he would clasp to his bosom going forward. The great-grandfather/mother of these plots is, of course, Bill Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, at the end of which Duke Orsino is willing to give it a go with Viola, even though she has hitherto been in disguise as Cesario, his eunuch. His on-the-spot reasoning for this is fairly weird:
Your master quits you; for your service done him,
So much against the mettle of your sex,
So far beneath your soft and tender breeding,
And since you call’d me master for so long
Here is my hand: you shall from this time be
Your master’s mistress.
Basically, thank you for being a friend, and since I suppose I quite liked you anyway, let’s get married. What’s not said here is that the service done Orsino is a mélange of friendship, loyalty and love – ‘I have unclasped to thee the book even of my secret soul’ – the extent of which is so immeasurable that Orsino is willing to overlook Viola’s lie of identity. It’s a great love story. This is why Twelfth Night was one of my favourite Shakespeare plays when I was growing up, and it still is.
Bell Shakespeare is currently touring its Twelfth Night, which I saw about a month ago in Melbourne (it’s currently on in Canberra, and Sydney will follow). I’m not a regular theatre-goer by any means, but this was a temptation I couldn’t pass up. I would have been happy even to see a historical, word-for-word version of the play – complete with boring renderings of Feste’s songs – and, wonderfully, this production was anything but.
The striking set held a huge mountain of clothes in the centre of the stage and detritus littered the perimeter. People dressed in smoke-stained clothing and firefighting gear wandered the wrack and ruin. A flickering TV screen told the firefighters, and us, that bushfires had been raging, that people were lost in the wilderness. One woman began crying; other people continued their wandering. One man picked up a book – a copy of Twelfth Night, and began to read. Someone strummed a guitar. Individuals hesitatingly read parts and then took them; the play was a way to pass the time and to defy the tragedy of their forsaken meeting.
This introduction was awkward and heavily played – which I’m assuming was deliberate, given that all the performers were excellent. But the wordless, mechanical opening foregrounded that heavy feeling of awaiting a performance of Shakespeare. No one sits in such an audience lightly, and I presume that no one stands on that stage lightly. Everyone knows what to expect; or do they? This opening signalled something different, and radically so. As the actors warmed to the well-loved words and the parts, my expectations fell swiftly away.
Lee Lewis’s Twelfth Night is an athletic, shape-shifting production. The set is a playground: parts get picked up and thrown around, and the mountain of clothing is both change room and platform. But even more affecting than the wise and wide-ranging use of space is the actors’ capacity to embody both the mourning firefighters and the long-beloved comedic characters. Andrea Demetriades is an earnestly slapsticking Viola; as always, I simultaneously rejoiced and mourned the moment when her pretence ceases and Cesario is no more. Ben Wood’s is easily the most sympathetic Malvolio I’ve ever seen (not that I’ve seen many) – his steward’s love of propriety comes from a taste for order rather than merely pride, and the bogan slant to his fastidiousness created some memorably comic moments. Easy, fussy, hammy Brent Hill is a magnificent Maria (he also plays Antonio and Valentine) – truly the fun-loving wench of the original play.
The grace and presence of the production is such that you waver between absorption in the story and wonder at the sparkling, new telling, despite the shabby clothes and dirty faces of its performers. Kit Brookman is a perfect Olivia; his crafty delight and comic haste shine beneath Olivia’s raggedy black slip dress. Elan Zavelsky’s interpretation of Orsino is a classic one; he’s handsome and well-voiced, and his restraint pays off in a noble, if distant, Count. But the real genius of Zavelsky’s smooth Orsino is its juxtaposition with Sir Andrew, whom Zavelsky also plays, sometimes within two beats of the other. A simple costuming change – a suit jacket is discarded – and Sir Andrew appears, a well-meaning, slick-looking lumphead recognisable to anyone who’s watched Big Brother or gone to the races. It’s such a well observed performance that you can almost hear Sir Andrew’s two brain cells knocking against each other.
One major sticking point in any production of Twelfth Night is the music. You can only hear Feste’s ditties (seriously) so many times, really, before you start wishing for one of Tolkien’s Ent poems. Lewis has bravely and affectingly updated the songs, with the wonderful Max Cullen singing blues or Hunters and Collectors’ ‘Throw Your Arms Around Me’ in place of the original verses. And the spectacle of Sir Toby (Adam Booth) and Sir Andrew singing Chumbawamba’s ‘Tubthumping’ is exactly the right update for the drunken scenes I usually skip through in any re-read (and which fall flat on screen). Trust me, it’s much better (and funnier) than it sounds. Only one of the contemporary tunes didn’t hold up for me – the cast’s saccharine rendition of ‘Walking on Sunshine’ made me feel like I was at a high school choral.
But that’s a tiny quibble about one of the most enjoyable nights I’ve had in ages. I haven’t laughed so much all year, nor been so inspired to revisit Shakespeare (apart from Hamlet). And it’s not every day you get to think about eunuchs.