Twelfth Night (William Shakespeare) – Chekhov International Theatre Festival in co-operation with Cheek by Jowl at the Theatre Royal
It seems a bit ironic that a week after seeing an English translation of The Cherry Orchard, I should see a Russian translation of Twelfth Night. The audience seemed to be a mix of people who had come because it was Shakespeare, and people who had come because it was Russian. I guess you don’t get a lot of Russian-language theatre in Sydney.
We weren’t sitting in the best position to read the surtitles, but that didn’t matter too much, as I’m sufficiently familiar with the play that I could just glance at them now and then, and enjoy the performances while the sound of the words washed over me. I hadn’t realised until now just what a beautiful language Russian is.
As well as being in Russian, this was an all-male production, and there was little attempt to disguise the sexuality of the actors. Olivia and Maria were both in skirts, but Olivia, in particular, had a very male haircut, which looked rather incongruous. And when Viola was wearing a dress, the boy-shorts underwear was very obvious. Ages ago, I remember reading a piece about Shakespearean theatre, which said that when a female character dresses as a male, for the audience this was simply a removal of disguise. I hadn’t actually realised the full psychological impact of this until now. In some ways, Viola was much more ambiguous than usual, simply because it was so much easier to think of her as male.
This production was from the same director as Othello a couple of years ago, and some of the same techniques were used: mostly empty stage, rather minimalist costumes, and particularly the way one scene sort of bled into the next one (ie the new scene would start even as the previous scene was still finishing). Although it doesn’t always work, this can be very effective.
I enjoyed all the performances. There were some interesting casting decisions – particularly the fact that Malvolio was quite young, and one of the two best-looking of the actors (the other being Sir Andrew!), so he did actually have some small basis for believing Olivia was in love with him.
The character of Fabian was completely dropped, with Feste taking over much of his part (though, oddly, the line about Toby marrying Maria was spoken by Maria herself). I’m not sure how I feel about this. He’s a bit of an add-on character who seems to appear out of nowhere to take over Feste’s part in the conspiracy (Jasper Fforde makes a joke about it in one of his Thursday Next books – that Feste has run away, so Fabian will have to cover for him). And yet, while the character was probably created for the practical reason that they had a leftover actor who needed a part (and, in this production, cut in order to save paying another actor), it does serve to keep Feste a bit more independent – on good terms with everyone, but not actually part of any of the inner circles. Which, for me, is very much the essence of his character.
It was hard to tell for sure how much of the play was cut. Certainly lines were missing from the surtitles, but I have a suspicion that in at least some cases, the actors still spoke them. The ending was interesting. There was a hint at first that Orsino wasn’t totally comfortable with Viola as a woman (he instinctively snatched his hands away from her when she reached out for him) but this seemed to disappear. More oddly, it seemed as if they were going to cut Malvolio’s “I’ll be revenged on the whole pack of you” line. And then right at the end, when everyone was dressed in happy, light coloured clothes, Malvolio came back on in his servant’s dress, served them all drinks, and then came to the front of the stage and said “I’ll be revenged on the whole pack of you” in a really menacing tone. At which point, the play ended. One can only wonder what might have been in the drinks he served!