Two performances – Samuel Barnett as shipwrecked gentlewoman Viola and Mark Rylance as Lady Olivia – make this Twelfth Night essential viewing. Even people who aren’t particularly into Shakespeare are likely to enjoy Rylance’s multicolored and often hilarious portrayal (although most of his best stuff comes after the intermission, trust me). This Twelfth Night may not be as definitive as the Richard III it alternates with; the fact that it is the more enjoyable evening overall is a measure of how great the play itself is.
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 and her identical twin Sebastian, 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.
And indeed, director Tim Carroll has given the homoerotic core of the comedy full play. He makes the gruffly masculine character Antonio, whose oft-declared love for Sebastian is plainly of the achingly romantic variety, more of a constant presence on-stage than in any other production, even giving him a sweetly understated moment of ruefulness at the end when Sebastian has disappeared behind a closing door.
The one major drawback of this production is lax enunciation on the part of the show’s clowns. The heart of their humor is sexual wordplay, but if you can’t make out the words, the playful edge goes out the window, and a chunk of the show’s comic spirit with it. One clown who is consistently understandable, sharp and hilarious is Angus Wright as the foolish knight Sir Andrew Aguecheek – I personally would put his performance next to Barnett’s and Rylance for strength and clarity of conception.
These issues are minor: this on the whole is the best Twelfth Night I’ve seen. It is not to be missed, especially for Shakespeare buffs.
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To learn about Jonathan Warman’s directing work, see jonathanwarman.com.