I’ve always loved Twelfth Night. I first read it at the age of twelve, along with one of my other great loves: Jane Eyre. They were set texts for my English class. My dad had been transferred to the UK for two years, and everything was new to me – the scratchy woollen tights, the accents, the sudden and horrifying plunge into an array of physical activities for which I was uniquely unsuited in a breathtaking diversity of ways.
I don’t know whether it was a function of my age, or the particular intensity of an only child in a foreign country, or the fact that dog-earing a book alone was something familiar to hold on to. Or whether both Twelfth Night and Jane Eyre are about watchful outsiders cast adrift, who find companionship and make themselves a new home. Not that I ever thought of myself as adrift, or a refugee, or anything of that sort. Or at least, no more than any bookish adolescent who gets antsy at the thought of making friends.
I loved – and love – both. Jane Eyre is easier to understand, I suppose: check out its heroine’s angularity, her unabashed lack of sentiment about Children Trailing Clouds of Glory, her restless intelligence, even her rigid Calvinist Christianity. I don’t have to share your values to love you, Jane. Twelfth Night is harder to defend, just as it’s harder to define. Its central character is an ambiguous figure tamping down her sexuality and social class, who bewitches two attitudinising narcissists and cures them of their self-love. About as different as can be from Jane Eyre, so quietly furious, so aggressively herself.
I imprinted on both, in one very specific way: for me, they define ‘sexy’. I couldn’t tell you then why I read and re-read the scene in Jane Eyre where Jane rescues Rochester from the fire in his bed, but I can tell you now. I couldn’t tell you then why I, at the tender age of twelve, damn near knew by heart Act 2, Scene 4 of Twelfth Night, or Viola’s (justly) famous ‘willow cabin’ speech. But I can tell you now. I continue to be amazed that they put such dynamite into the hands of impressionable pre-teens, but Gods bless them for doing so.
Re-reading Twelfth Night now, I still think it’s transgressive even – or perhaps especially – in the twenty-first century. There is, of course, that teasing notion of gender as performance. Its heroine appears once in female garb and then spends the rest of the play dressed as a boy – right up to the end of the play even after her true gender is revealed (unique among Shakespeare’s cross-dressing comedies). She is only called by her female name to her face once, by her brother, in the final scene. And also unlike Shakespeare’s other cross-dressing heroines, she is frequently ill-at-ease in ‘this [her] masculine usurped attire’ – which paradoxically does all the more to highlight that gender is a role performed often for other people’s benefit. Which is all right there in the text to wrinkle your brow even without the inevitable reminder that the ‘heroine’ would be played by a boy actor in Shakespeare’s day. In these days of bathroom bills and the debate over the sex of the brain that just will not die, it’s a salutary reminder that the roles of ‘boy’ and ‘girl’ can be slipped into like robes.
Which makes it all the more disappointing that Simon Godwin’s production of Twelfth Night at the National Theatre, should do so little while promising so much. Twelfth Night’s breakout character – the Puritanical, officious, self-deluding steward Malvolio – is now MalvoliA, and is played by the terrific Tamsin Grieg. Feste’s a woman too, played by Doon Mackichan. And…that’s kind of it. Godwin and Grieg don’t shed any new or revelatory light on Malvolio’s social-climbing steward. Grieg’s Malvolia is a fairly familiar Welsh-accented prissy control-freak. She acquits herself well, especially in the darker later scenes when Malvolia is cruelly catfished and gaslit by the parasitic drunks she’s butted heads against. And honestly, maybe that’s good enough. Why not give great roles to terrific actors irrespective of gender? But then that evades the question: why bother changing Malvolio’s gender? Sure, the doomed self-deluding crush of the steward on his mistress can now be updated to a sort of Mrs Danvers thing. But…is that it?
Okay, let’s say that’s unfair. If gender itself is a performance, then perhaps it’s radical enough to transplant the foibles of a traditionally male part to a female and say ‘see? Nothing changes!’ Okay, I’ll accept that.
But then why hurtle past the fraught gender identity that is actually in the play? Twelfth Night’s heroine, Viola (Tamara Lawrence, so good in Unreachable at the Royal Court Theatre, so woefully undirected here) enters the service of Orsino (Oliver Chris, whom I’ll watch out for in other productions) – and rises so swiftly through the ranks that he sends her a-wooing in his stead to Olivia (Phoebe Fox). This is a bit unpleasant for Viola, because she’s in love with Orsino herself. But it’s about to get a hell of a lot more awkward, because Olivia – utterly indifferent to Orsino – soon has eyes only for the ‘boy’ Orsino has sent. In the meantime, Orsino’s developing the weirdest boners for his ‘dear lad’….and that, ladies and gentles, is how you do a love triangle.
And here’s the thing: it’s easy to dismiss all this as titillation laced with gay panic – but the play’s insistent fascination with identity-as-performance makes that difficult. Why is the play’s heroine dressed as a boy? Because she’s recreating her twin brother, whom she thinks is dead. What is it about the watchful, androgynous figure at the play’s centre that so fascinates two posturing aristocrats that they finally come face to face with themselves? Why does the play keep returning to the themes of perspective and optical illusion? When the twins are united, the spectacle is described as ‘a natural perspective, that is and is not’. A lover is so restless and unstable that he is told his mind is ‘a very opal’. A trickster insists on putting on the robes of the man he plays, even though his audience can’t see him. And again and again the insistent refrain ‘it’s all one’. The play nudges you, again and again, into discomfort about how fixed identity is.
But why bother with all of that, when you can hustle past them to set up a rambunctious plot where an officious domestic autocrat is fooled into wearing yellow stockings?
And look, I get it. Twelfth Night is a comedy, after all. And there’s no doubt that the production delivers on the show’s comic centrepiece – the scene where Malvolia is duped into believing her mistress loves her. And I’ll even allow that the show’s commitment to finding the light side yields unexpected dividends. Orsino, who never makes much of an impression on me usually, got a big laugh from me at his blank delivery of ‘Oh’.
But I missed what the Guardian’s Michael Billington calls the play’s ‘silvery melancholy’. And I missed that sense of conspiratorial wonder of twelve-year-old me, smiling along to ‘Make me a willow cabin at your gate’.
Anyone have personal favourite ‘Night‘s? Or Jane Eyres, for the matter of that?
Twelfth Night is running at the National Theatre until May 13th.