“Twelfth Night” has long been my favorite of Shakespeare’s romantic comedies. In it, Shakespeare takes love between people of the same sex very seriously — all you have to do is look at the character names.
The play follows the romantic adventures of Viola (Anne Hathaway) and her identical twin Sebastian (Stark Sands), both shipwrecked in the enchanted dukedom of Illyria. Viola is a poetic name for the violet flower, which Sappho was known to have woven into her garlands; they were also an important part of the religion of the ancient Earth goddess Cybele. Sebastian alludes to St. Sebastian, a martyr who had by Shakespeare’s time appeared in very homoerotic paintings by Botticelli and Titian, among others. Shakespeare was familiar with all these things; using one of those names might have been a coincidence, but using both suggests conscious design.
Director Daniel Sullivan’s production, however, doesn’t dig anywhere near that deep. The more explicit gay content of the play — the baldly declared love of the sailor Antonio for Sebastian, the mix-ups Viola falls into by disguising herself as a boy named Cesario — are dealt with in a refreshingly clear-cut manner. Indeed, for better or worse this is the most straightforward “Twelfth Night” I’ve ever seen.
It’s also one of the most exquisitely cast I’ve ever seen. Hathaway is transcendent as Viola, playing every doubt and surprise (and Viola has many of both) with great detail. David Pittu is magnificent as the wise clown Feste (his performance is the only one that successfully brings out the play’s richer colors of mysticism and melancholy). And the musical settings by folk group Hem are gorgeous — one trio between Pittu, Hathaway and Raul Esparza (as Duke Orsino) is very moving indeed.
I can recommend that you see it for Hathaway’s performance, but I can’t recommend it as “definitive.” Pittu and Hem aside, it’s simply missing the danger, exhilaration and ache this play should have.
To learn about Jonathan Warman’s directing work, see jonathanwarman.com.