So asks the shipwrecked Viola as she reaches the shores of Illyria , traumatised , bereft of a brother and embarks on a story of love, passion, drunkenness, identity and disguise. Whîlst away in a place by the sea, I have been using some of the time to fully consider the overriding metaphorical feeling of the piece, and to find some unity of purpose, and a feeling of the whole. I considered the influence of water in the play, not in a literal sense, but alchemical and astrological. This, I feel, is something which scores the play.
The element of water in astrology and ancient symbolism has a strong connection in this play. Water signs also rule drunkenness, wildness, sex, love, madness, chaos , loss of identity, death. Oh, and music! ‘If music be the food of live play on’. In fact, almost all things ‘the play treats on’ to quote another Shakespearean comedy, are ruled by the element of water.
I have watched the opening of a number of 12th Nights on YouTube and most have seen fit to put the Shipwreck scene first. On the grounds of naturalistic narrative this seems to be a sensible juxtaposition. If we consider the Tempest, the storm makes a violent and powerful opening . But by this change in 12th Night, Viola, in many ways the spine of the story, is pushed too far into the heroine mould. The play becomes about Viola. However, even though she is in the most scenes the play is very much a team effort. It is about a world, many facets of a way of being.
The first offering I watched on YouTube ( and I have to confess I watched only sections of each production) was the Renaissance theatre production from the late 80s by Kenneth Branagh. Its Dickensian feel, though powerful, seemed humourless. Anton Lesser as Feste and Richard Briars as Malvolio were in battle from the start, but for me this was too dark. It needed to be fun. I think there is a massive challenge here to give equal depth to the polarity of comedy and tragedy so much a feature of this period of drama and a polarity which this play exploits considerably. The play has so much darkness bubbling beneath and yet you let it dominate at your peril.
I then moved to a late 60s production by John Dexter starring Joan Plowright and Ralph Richardson. Again Viola’s scene came first. Set against a beautiful painted backdrop of a romantic land, Viola was the noblewoman still with her belongings, including fetching chiffon scarf. When I say Viola’s scene came first, the first part came first. We then moved to the dashing Orsino, and in the final moments of his scene saw Viola watching him, and then deciding that she would disguise herself and work for him. She fell for Orsino on sight, which as he was played by the dashing Gary Raymond was not too surprising, but it gave the character of Viola a naturalistic spur to her actions.
The first comedy scene was excruciatingly dull and dated. Sir Ralph as Sir Toby ŵas doing a Falstaff riff opposite a Maria who appeared to me rather lost, condemned to a chaste delivery in a racy costume. The scene had little connection to the world of Olivia’s mood or house, and everyone seemed to be sleepwalking through it, hoping that no one watching would confess to not understanding it. Tommy Steele as Feste looked now modern and interesting, perhaps because we knew he was a Feste himself.
Then there was a bizarre Russian production with a sultry, wicked Viola. I love the way that the take of Eastern Europe on Shakespeare is so refreshing. There were dancing clowns and a trio of chanting mandarins in Orsino’s court. It looked very spoofy, and very design-led…. Fun for ten minutes. It too began with Violas storm.
One film that did not begin with scene 2 was a film of an Australian production set in modern dress with fabulous music . It felt very stylish but superficial. I think there is a massive danger with 12th Night to be over committed to style, to romanticism in a very superficial sense. The play, though it is a comedy, needs really digging into for its juice and heart to have as M.Chekhov would say, “a feeling of the whole”.
Finally I saw some scenes from the feted Globe production with Mark Rylance as Olivia. This had to advantage of being filmed at the Globe before a packed audience.
It was hilarious.