Saturday, September 28, 2002

Twelfth Night at Shakespeare's Globe

Recently, I puchased the special edition DVD of William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. In the commentary Director Baz Luhrmann and Production Designer Catherine Martin talk about wanting to get away from what they describe as "the Victorian conception of Shakespeare". While their resultant movie of television, guns, rock music, and tatooed guys wearing Hawaiian shirts did indeed get away from the Victorian conception (and, while on that, most other conceptions as well), I do know what they meant. There is a certain idea that you should sit in an enclosed theatre, and feel the seats through your backside as you listen very carefully to the language being enunciated so clearly. While Of course, Shakespeare doesn't have to be like that, and in a good production often isn't, and probably wasn't even in Victorian times, but there is an earnestness that does become a bit much sometimes. I certainly have the memory of studying Hamlet at school, and going and seeing a very earnest production in which none of the audience (or really the cast) seemed to be enjoying themselves. I could appreciate the beauty of the language, certainly, although to some extent it was a matter of being in a thick fog, and occasionally a clear patch would open up and something extraordinarily beautiful would be visible through. I like Lurmann's Romeo and Juliet : the film's photography of Mexico City is dazzling, the film's use of music is sensational, and the film certainly respects the integrity of the story. While there is something to the criticism that the film doesn't properly respect the language, I think Mr Ebert is too harsh. The film works. The film has power. Sometimes its hard to describe why. Michael Almereyda attempted to do something similar with Hamlet in 2000, setting the play as a struggle for power in "Denmark Corporation" in New York, and while the film was technically competent and well acted, it fell completely flat. I do think, though, that the worst thing you can do with Shakespeare is make it dull. And I think when Catherine Martin is talking about getting away from the Victorian conception of Shakespeare, what she is actually saying is that we must avoid making it dull.

Which gets me to the production of Twelfth Night I saw on Friday night. This too got away from the Victorian conception of Shakespeare, but by going entirely in the opposite direction. I went to the reconstructed Globe Theatre on the south bank of the Thames. I had never been to the theatre before, and it so happened, largely by luck that I chose to go to the most authentic attempt at an Elizabethan production of a Shakespearean production that has been tried since the new Globe opened. It had Elizabethan costume, musicians playing Elizabethan musical instruments, an Elizabethan attitude to sets and props and, in particular, an all male cast. Certain things about Shakespeare in general suddenly make more sense when you see a play in something like the original theatre. For one thing, about half the audience at the Globe are groundlings , that is, people standing. Standing in one place for a while is tiring, and the breaks in the play, or at least in the action when there may be a scence of revelry or singing and dancing or similar, are at least partly there to allow the groundlings to move around a bit and prevent their legs from getting too stiff, and similar. There is much more interaction between the standing audience and the actors than is the case in a Victorian production, at times the audience is rowdy. But the play is designed for this.

But on to Twelfth Night in particular. This is one of Shakespeare's "cross dressing" plays, and was clearly deliberately chosen for an all male cast at least partly for this reason. The character of Viola spends much of the play impersonating a man, and quite a bit of the plot depends on the vact that she and her twin brother Sebastian are constantly mistaken for one another. In modern times, Viola is normally played by a woman and Sebastian by a man, and generally you can tell. Therefore a certain amount of suspension of disbelief is necessary in order that you accept that all the other characters in the play cannot tell them apart. However, if they are both played by men as in this production, they can quite genuinely be close to indistinguishable. A certain amount of suspension of disbelief is necessary to accept that Viola is a woman in the first place I suppose, but when all the female characters are played by men this is somehow easier. And in any event the audiences in 1602 were no doubt so used to the convention of female parts being played by men that they barely noticed it. The prevalence of cross-dressing in Shakespeare's plays suddenly means something different though. It works better with an all male cast. It really does.

The location, and the production, and the fact that we had permission to really get into the play and be a little rowdy rather than being required to sit back, be quiet, and absorb the earnestness of the production, did something to the audience. It gave us permission to have a really good time. A buzz was present, almost like you might find at a sporting event. Everyone was engrossed by the play, and were simply having a really good time. It was the best night out I have had in ages. They need to build one of these Globe Theatres in every city.

Isaac Asimov once wrote a short story called "The Immortal Bard". In this story, a scientist invents a time machine, and with it goes back to the early 17th century and brings Shakespeare to the present. He enrols Shakespeare in a college Shakespeare course, and the bard is overwhelmed by all the things now being said about the actual meaning of his plays, and flunks the course. Given what is now taught in many English departments, Asimov was if anything prophetic. However, imagine that it was possible to bring Shakespeare 400 years through time to modern London. Given that he lived before the great fire, there wouldn't be much he recognised.. Even St Paul's, more or less directly across the river from the Globe, was built since his time. Still, imagine that you could show Shakespeare the Globe theatre, and that and that he could see large crowds of people attending productions of his plays, more or less as they had been 400 years before, in more or less the same place beside the Thames. Most importantly, he would see audiences having a really good time. A finer tribute to him

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