Twelfth Night is a very resilient play. It takes whatever you throw at it and pushes back, sometimes in unexpected ways. It balances life and death, joy and despair, love and rejection, drunkenness and sobriety. But it isn’t a delicate balance in danger of being upset; it’s a solid push-pull. Emphasising the grief and loss threaded through the play makes the funny bits screamingly hilarious, and playing up the comedy gives the seriousness room to breath and come through in its own time.
The Company Theatre took the latter route, with a joyful gung-ho all-singing-all-dancing production. I felt the lack of surtitles more keenly than I have at any other show, as the adaptation was obviously very loose, and I was disappointed at all the good jokes I was clearly missing. (The surtitles for all Globe to Globe productions are scene summaries, rather than line-by-line translations, and their accuracy and relevance has so far been a bit hit and miss.)
For example, the show was narrated by Amitosh Nagpal, who played Sebastian and also translated the play into Hindi. The woman standing beside me translated his commentary for me: he said the director had decided to cut the scenes with Sebastian and Antonio to streamline the play, leaving him with a total of four lines, so he’d taken matters into his own hands and would be emceeing the rest of the evening.
Feste’s jokes about “living by the church” were apparently changed to “living by the shop”, and I can only imagine what other jokes I missed. Oh well! Feste, by the way, was brilliant: played as a woman by Neha Saraf with no other change to the character, she nailed the way Feste is always there and not there, contributing to the plots while standing back and satirising everyone else on stage.
It was raining steadily on Saturday night, and there was a bit of a drag in the first scene as the performance took a while to get up to speed (or maybe that was just me projecting, faced with the knowledge I’d be standing out in the open rain for the next two and a half hours). However, once it did, the time flew by: I was shocked when the interval came and I found an hour and a half had passed.
Mansi Multani, who played Olivia, was completely riveting. I couldn’t take my eyes off her. In my experience, most very attractive actors (this applies to all genders) are nervous about committing to comedy because it makes them look a bit stupid (or, because they just don’t have the chops). Multani was precise and fearless in her comic choices: pulling faces, diving onto the floor or, with Sebastian, performing a ludicrous satire of melodramatic romance. My new friend in the audience told me that all the actors were using different accents, and Olivia’s was from the north, which is most associated with melodramas.
Olivia was intriguingly costumed in bright colours from the start, in contrast to the way directors usually show her, moving from mourning into joy when she meets Viola/Cesario. It made it seem that Olivia was “in mourning” only to deter Orsino – she was hopping to go when she met someone she actually did fancy.
Toby, Sir Andrew and Maria were all exactly right, with Andrew very enthusiastic, like a puppy Toby liked to have around but just couldn’t keep himself from kicking now and then. Malvolio’s role was cut heavily: the prison scene with Feste was taken out, so he was handed over to Toby and Maria for safekeeping and that was it until the end. Olivia was clearly pleased with the joke, and told Maria off only for appearances. The yellow stockings scene wasn’t weighted as heavily as it would have been if we’d seen more of Malvolio’s character beforehand, but I’m happy with the trade-off of all the brilliant songs and dances – and that’s another scene where it’s very hard to go wrong.
Geetanjali Kulkarni’s Viola was lovely, and a foot shorter than Olivia, which is always comedy gold. She was cheerful and bolshy in her scenes with Olivia, and unusually (and delightfully) sarcastic with Orsino whenever he launched into another round of moaning about his love life. At the end of the first act she slowly took down her hair to muted music, and lay on the stage to sleep.
The dark side of the play, which hadn’t been in evidence until now, came out in her sheer exhaustion: alone, her family dead, in a foreign country, in a disguise she will have to keep up for who knows how long, in love with someone she will never have, and who she will have to spend years watching moon over other women.
I usually find it a bit of a cop-out when directors choose to have Viola reappears in her women’s clothes at the end, as she did here, but this wasn’t a playful queer Cesario: she was tired, and she wanted to be herself again.
I saw Globe to Globe’s Twelfth Night production at Shakespeare’s Globe on April 28, 2012.