The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 14.0218  Thursday, 6 February 2003

From:           Charles Weinstein <This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.>
Date:           Wednesday, 5 Feb 2003 18:23:35 -0500
Subject:        No Wonder: Twelfth Night, Directed by Sam Mendes

How can a theatre company freshen this most beautiful and overexposed of
plays?  By taking it seriously, for a start.  The characters confront
the paradox of loving deeply without being loved in return, a
bewildering asymmetry that makes the world seem wrong.  In response,
they adopt a variety of strategies:  denial, grandiosity, harassment,
bribery, abjection, resignation, madness.  Viola loves Orsino who loves
Olivia who loves Cesario, and this round-robin of non-requital is echoed
by other sad and comic histories. Andrew and Malvolio both desire
Olivia, who ignores the one and misapprehends the other.  Antonio
silently worships Sebastian, but can an Illyrian Count remain friends
with a pirate? Only Feste, who has no illusions, and Toby, who is too
drunk to care, are exempt from the plague; and even Toby dwindles into a

In the final scene a baffled and despairing Orsino asks Olivia, "What
shall I do?"  Anything you like, is her tart reply.  Why shouldn't I
kill you? he rejoins.  At which, I imagine, everyone turns to stone.
His murderous thoughts then fasten on Cesario, whose capture of Olivia's
affections he has instantly divined.  In a kind of frenzy, his intent
"ripe in mischief," he orders his servant to follow him to her death.
Viola now breaks her four-act silence.  In a frenzy or ecstasy of her
own, she declares that she loves Orsino more than existence and will
gladly let him take her life.  If she cannot be her master's mistress,
she will be his mortal victim, a consummation devoutly to be wished.
This is not empty posturing, and it is not funny either.  Comedy teeters
on the edge of tragic catastrophe:  it is rescued by the sudden entrance
of a drowned man.   As in the later romances, a seeming miracle redeems
the time.   This is the air, and that the glorious sun:  for once, and
for a few, the world is set right.

The pain, absurdity and transcendence of these moments can be realized
only by "taking the play seriously," a process generally known as
commitment.  But commitment is not a virtue in a postmodern age.
Advanced classical theaters favor irony, detachment, dream-like
stylization and the chilly recesses of self-consciousness.  Sam Mendes'
Twelfth Night is less in thrall to such chicness than other productions
of the same feather, and it manages to do some things correctly or
inoffensively.  The music for cello, guitar and piano is poignant.  The
set, derived from Adrian Noble's Midsummer (Mendes is highly imitative),
features an attractive forest of hanging lamps.   A large picture frame
in which the characters strike infrequent poses does no particular
harm.  The actors are all competent, and some are better than that.

Yet the production disappoints.  Sweet-tempered and agreeable, it flows
along smoothly, skillfully and shallowly, never once sifting through to
profounder regions or widening into prospects of infinity.  Even the
better performers are reined-in and muted, keeping a small but crucial
distance from the play.

A great Twelfth Night requires a great Viola, but greatness and Emily
Watson have yet to meet.  Ten years ago, Ms. Watson was a mere
supernumerary at Stratford.  She stood out even then, largely because
she didn't fit in anywhere.  She subsequently found a niche in cinema,
giving bad performances in bad movies (Breaking the Waves, Hillary and
Jackie) and appealing performances in bad movies (Red Dragon).  As Viola
she is certainly appealing, and sweet, very sweet; but she never exerts
herself, never rises or delves, never strays from an easy, casual note
of bemused wistfulness.  The decline of English Violas from the standard
set by Judi Dench and Dorothy Tutin--a devolution exemplified by Imogen
Stubbs, Emma Fielding, Emily Watson and others--is a spectacle more
heartbreaking than anything in this production.

Helen McCrory struggles to combine two very different versions of
Olivia: the giddy, impetuous vamp first seen in Peter Hall's 1958
production, and the imperious Madonna of earlier tradition who finds
herself chastened by sudden ardor.  She nearly succeeds but should never
have tried:  the latter-day approach is reductive and trivial.  Selina
Cadell's Maria, surprised by middle-age, affects form-fitting dresses,
ingenue hairstyles and byzantine practical jokes as a quietly desperate
means of clinging to youth:  the most subtle and interesting performance
of the evening.  A rosaceous, Kiplingesque Toby (Paul Jesson) nails each
of his laughs efficiently, while an impressively desiccated Andrew
(David Bradley) provokes smiles without even trying.  Orsino, Feste and
Fabian skim their parts.  The actor playing Antonio is a nullity.

The supposed star performance is Simon Russell Beale's Malvolio.
Abysmal as Iago and Hamlet, Beale is more comfortably situated in
comedy, where his risible appearance, plummy diction and heavily
congested voice no longer seem out of place.  Bearded and mustached like
Sebastian Cabot, guiding his spherical belly about the stage on mincing
little feet like an en pointe hippo, Beale is amusing without being
hilarious, pathetic without being moving, capable without being remotely
great.  Alas, his pronounced effeminacy makes his alleged desire for
Olivia seem incredible (though it does suggest an interesting way of
tying up loose ends: perhaps he and Antonio could pair off at the

The last scene of this production never touches heaven; it lapses
instead into a familiar sleepwalking mode.  Somnambulism is by now a
postmodern cliche (e.g., Andrei Serban's Twelfth Night at the American
Repertory Theater; Robert Lepage's Midsummer at the National).  It is
deployed here not to evoke wonder but to evade it.  "Wonder" is clearly
embarrassing nowadays; yet without it, a Twelfth Night is doomed to
inconsequence.  At the end of this production, one is much the same as
when it began:  dry-eyed, heart-whole, neither moved nor exhilarated.
In Shakespeare there are no awards for coming close.

--Charles Weinstein

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