Twelfth Night, or What You Will

Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre

at Chicago Shakespeare Theater

As Harold Bloom puts it, Shakespeare’s antic comedy of misdirected love might have been written by “a much funnier Nietzsche.” Driving the action in the semifantastical land of Illyria are forces just beyond human control, buffeting the characters’ hearts and minds with the capricious recklessness that so tormented the philosopher. Filtered through Shakespeare’s comedic imagination, however, these forces render the search for true love in Twelfth Night ridiculous rather than tragic. It’s a play that can reach rare saturnalian heights if a company embraces the giddy spirit of the holiday that gives the work its title.

Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre doesn’t. Its Twelfth Night, reportedly the most successful show in this acclaimed company’s eight-year history, has received enthusiastic reviews during its U.S. tour, but its popularity seems akin to that of a network news anchor: it’s so handsome, poised, and well-spoken that it’s hard to imagine any argument with it. Tim Carroll’s meticulous, overly deliberate staging effectively transforms the play’s frenetic revelry into muted, well-behaved pleasantry.

And for a company that prides itself on employing conventions from Shakespeare’s day–an all-male cast, Elizabethan costuming and music–Shakespeare’s Globe gives inadequate attention to the most important of Shakespearean artifacts, the text itself. Or perhaps they’ve given it too much: the actors seem so enraptured with their lines that they too often forget the urgency of their characters’ romantic raptures. The famous opening scene sets precisely the wrong tone. Orsino, the duke for whom music is the food of love, professes a debilitating infatuation with the hard-hearted countess Olivia, but he appears more in love with himself and his own sumptuous melancholy. Like most of the lovers in the play, Orsino should be something of a dissembling buffoon. But as portrayed by Liam Brennan, he’s a brooding Ewan McGregor type who might take half the night to deliver his 15-line soliloquy. It’s refreshing to hear the text spoken so clearly, but the evening’s opening scene unfortunately suggests idleness, not fervor.

Orsino hopes to woo Olivia by sending messages via an adolescent page, “Cesario,” who’s actually a young woman named Viola. She washed up on the shores of Illyria after a shipwreck–which she believes killed her twin brother, Sebastian–and disguised herself as a man in order to find employment. But she forgets her grief to fall in love at first sight with Orsino, thus finding herself in the unenviable position of pleading the cause of the man she loves to another woman. And since misrule is the order of the day in Twelfth Night, the melancholic Olivia is instantly smitten with Cesario/Viola, abandoning her own mourning (for her father and brother) with the speed of a distraught child being offered a shiny new toy.

The scenes set in Olivia’s court–which is so different from Orsino’s it seems pulled from another production–come closest to capturing the chaotic spirit of Twelfth Night. Most of the credit for that goes to Mark Rylance (the Globe’s artistic director), whose beguiling, mercurial turn as Olivia is almost reason enough to see the show. Sewn into a voluminous black gown, face painted like a porcelain doll, this Olivia glides about the stage as though rolling on casters. She’s so conscious of her elevated social status that she can hardly turn her head for fear of shattering her aristocratic veneer. She’s the perfect patsy for love’s leveling force, and watching her valiant efforts to maintain decorum is intoxicating.

She herself seems intoxicated and gleefully erratic. But these traits are rarely evident in anyone else. They’re most disappointingly absent in the play’s drunken fools–Sir Toby Belch, Sir Andrew Aguecheek, and the fool Feste–who so lack comedic edge (not to mention intelligible diction) that a good half of their foolishness turns to mush. Michael Brown is sympathetic and credible as Viola but more prone to well-reasoned introspection than consuming swoons. And Timothy Walker turns in a deliciously subtle performance as Malvolio, Olivia’s condescending steward, mincing through his scenes as though everything around him were emitting a foul odor. But even at his best–when he imagines that a bogus letter reveals Olivia’s love for him–Walker’s performance is too deliberately crafted to suggest that Malvolio is swept away. The forces that rule this production are decidedly non-Nietzschean: one senses that most of these Illyrians could get their lives under control without much effort.

Perhaps the fundamental problem is the leisurely pace Carroll sets: no matter how urgently a scene might begin, it settles into lighthearted complacency. It’s as though the characters were slightly removed from their own predicaments, not lost in them. True, the pangs of sudden unrequited love will appear ludicrous to the audience, but those afflicted onstage must seem to feel the agonies of a lethal infection. Without that life-or-death edge, Twelfth Night amuses when it should consume.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Tramper.