Twelfth Night

William Shakespeare

Thu 23rd October to Sat 25th October 2008


Gordon Craig

Churchill Theatre(map)


Twelfth Night, or What You Will is the only play for which Shakespeare provided an alternative title.  The word “will” possessed for Elizabethans its modern sense of wish or inclination, and this is its primary significance: an airy invitation to the audience to rechristen the comedy according to individual taste and reaction - an invitation taken up, most notably, by Charles I, who insisted upon describing the play in his personal copy of the Second Folio simply as “Malvolio”.


The words Twelfth Night not only suggest a carnival world; they warn an audience that it is not to ask too many awkward questions about the miraculous resemblance of boy and girl twins who, on the stage, will almost invariably look less than identical.  Nor are we to question love at first sight, a duke who accepts as his wife a servant he thought, only five minutes before, as a boy, or the feasibility of persuading a man that he can make his fortune forever by way of yellow stockings and crossed garters. To watch Twelfth Night on stage, is to participate and delight in a heightened world temporarily free form time and normal responsibility.


To suggest the audience alone is required to willingly suspend their disbelief would be disingenuous.  Both Viola and Sebastian, the two intruders from the sea, may be momentarily baffled by the topsy-turvy world of Illyria, yet both yield themselves to the current without even trying to alter its course.  Sebastian cheerfully marries a woman he doesn’t know, and who may well be mad, simply because she is lovely and lays passionate claim to him.  Viola disguises herself as a boy in an effort to evade action rather than initiate it.  When provided with virtual proof that her twin brother is not only alive but the source of considerable confusion and misunderstanding, she makes no attempt to explain, let alone find him.  By surrendering herself unquestioningly to the madness of Illyria and remaining aware but passive, she contrives to win Olivia for her brother and marry Orsino herself. 


Yet for all of its frivolity and whimsy, Twelfth Night remains first and foremost a meditation on the nature and fulfillment of love.  At its heart Twelfth Night is a romantic comedy and love, in all its guises, remains the play’s main focus.  Few characters in the play are not actively in search of an idealized form of love: Orsino and Olivia search for romance with the twins Viola and Sebastian, Sir Toby and Maria for fulfillment of long promised if not orthodox courtship, Sir Andrew for the acceptance and brotherly love of Sir Toby, and Malvolio, and to a lesser extent Antonio, for a return of their devotions from their misplaced objects of desire.  Despite the fact that the play offers a happy ending, in which the various lovers find one another and achieve wedded bliss, Shakespeare is quick to temper this by showing love cannot conquer all obstacles, and those whose desires go unfulfilled remain no less in love but feel the sting of its absence all the more severely.