For your mind’s eye, let the filter be known: this play was through my eyes seen, and my ears heard; the words here are my experience. There were dozens of others in the room, and the sound may have echoed ever slightly more high or low to them. Nonetheless, there is spectacle in recanting, and truth in subjectivity, even if just a glimmer. This play was Twelfth Night.
Regarding the idea of subjectivity, every time I see a play of Shakespeare’s in its newest rendition, his image becomes more clear. In this case of this play, what seemed most alive was Shakespeare’s love for his own witty banter and wit itself. One wonders whether Shakespeare had any idea his visage would cast a shadow on the literary world for all humans to come; this play nudged me a bit more toward the idea he certainly had an inkling. The word “wit” and its family of derivatives were uttered over 20 times, enough to leave a cacophony in my ears. The word is brief, but the storm is not.
Beyond the words themselves is the acting of them. The actors themselves were fantastic — understatement and overstatement made their appearance in good measure, and at no point did I feel them out of place.
The play itself is obviously old; Shakespeare no doubt has the language of a most complex individual, and of a place a few centuries back. Naturally, this lends itself to an old and archaic sense in the play. Tonight’s rendition used this language in tandem with 1920s style clothing to emphasize both. What is the 1920s for us contemporary folk but a key section of the wondrous modern American mythology, a place both mystical yet rooted in the ground we walk on still? People of ages far-removed still tell us of those times, a weird and enticing flicker in the dark hallway behind us. In sense, the 1920s are one of those special times that inhabit both familiarity and distance in our memory, and so use the archaic language to its benefit. Like the 1920s, Shakespeare’s thick and hearty blank verse is distant, but still the ever-familiar English we use day in and day out.
Another note of jovial intrigue was the extensive use of women to play male roles. Some of this may have been to emphasize that Shakespeare used boys for his girl parts in his day. Some of this may have been comedic: the only men in the play were in the most ridiculously humorous roles of the play.
Most important, I found, was the reaffirming of Shakespeare’s internal philosophical suggestions beyond the comedy. Twelfth Night is a play that revolves around the idea of image and identity — how does one’s public image differs from those around them, and how does the image we perceive of others match their true character? Certainly a play about twins, a boy and girl, causing strife through their identical appearance plays on the idea of image quite a bit; this is stressed further when the twin boy is played by a female actor who, no doubt, looks very much like her female partner.
The play also tackles the images we present to others, the unfaithful front that shuns our true ideas, thoughts and impulses. This truth is revealed in the play most starkly when the wealthy countess Olivia declares her most irrational love to Viola, who is disguised as a man named Cesario. Up to this ironic and peculiarly funny moment, Olivia had played a long cat-and-mouse game, having Viola come back and forth repeatedly so each time Olivia may better entreat her affections. These attempts all fail and, in desperation, Olivia buckles and outpours her truth. A most memorable and reflective image of the play is when Malvolio wears yellow stockings with crossed garters in an attempt to woo Olivia, and here I think it represents how apt our outer facades are — ugly in falsity but ever fair in intent, to gain those we desire.
A once far-off quote collected and paraphrased in the vestiges of my mind said something like this: “Tragedy is perspective up-close, and comedy is perspective in the grand scheme.” Similarly, I could taste the tragedy in this play, and I sense the director had the same good sense. As the play closes out, one can see the three happy couples, some having shed their false exteriors and others embracing their ever-faithful ones, cavort off into the distance to the tune of the Fool. The final scene is that of the four lonely characters of the play, the ones without love in this jocund tale. They stood at the four corners of the stage, stared blank-faced, perhaps with a hint of doleful longing. They faded with the closing of the lights and the roar of applause. And with this good ending, I realized I had not laughed once the whole play. I chuckled here and there with quickly exhaled gusts, but not once did I really laugh. It was no fault of the actors, but rather I think a hidden aspect of the play. I saw a universal laughter expressed by my fellow man, one that did not rise in me, and I fear it was because I saw familiarity split four ways vanish in the dark and the roar.