‘… we will draw the curtain and show you the picture.’
I loved Shakespeare when I was at school, despite my English teachers. They were not the enthusiastic pedagogues of today, striving to make the bard accessible because every child mattered. My teachers were dry pecking birds who wanted to perpetuate a class system in which the Felicities and Florences were urged towards Oxbridge and the threadbare uniformed eleven plus-passing paupers like me were relegated to the back row of low expectations. I knew I would achieve an A grade at A level in English. When I mentioned going to Liverpool to study my degree, the headteacher wrinkled her rhinoceros nose at me and said ‘Eww, that is so towny!’
I paid her about as much attention as I ever did and never looked back once I’d left.
But I loved the Literature classes, even though Abigail and Arabella got to read all the best parts round the class and I had the occasional comic role because I could do accents.
In year eight we ‘did’ ‘Twelfth Night’. I struggled a bit with the concept of Shakespeare’s comedies at that point. We were told that some plays were classed as comedies, but I didn’t understand why some of them were funny, and no-one explained it to me. In ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream,’ we were meant to laugh at Bottom’s working class plight and his subsequent humiliation. In ‘The Shrew,’ we were meant to find Kate’s subjugation funny. And I never knew, as a kid, what was so hilarious about the antisemitic abuse and exploitation of Shylock in ‘The Merchant of Venice.’
It was the 20th century, not the 17th, and I was clear why Sir Toby was fairly funny and Sir Andrew was a figure of parody, and I understood that it was hilarious that Maria and her boys took the poke out of Malvolio because he deserved it for being priggish. I was a bit uncomfortable with that, though. The idle rich and drunk laughing at others and marrying the maid because she showed her superior wit by ridiculing someone a bit weak with probable low self-esteem. Wasn’t that bullying, I wondered? And as a thirteen year old, I had no idea why it was funny to dress up as a boy and cause a rich egotistical heiress to pursue you.
Then much later I saw Mark Rylance as Olivia.
‘Twelfth Night’, at The Globe in 2013, was an all-male cast, much as it would have been almost 400 years ago, in Jacobean costume, with traditional music and instruments.
Rylance as Olivia brought everything into sharp focus: with his tiny steps, which gave the impression of gliding daintily across the stage, and his falsetto-high voice, his performance was not a parody or a grotesque, but a radical and witty interpretation which cleverly makes the traditional also sharply contemporary. Olivia was not played for her superficial beauty, but for her keen wit and her ability to run her own household powerfully and with insight. And when she sees Cesario, Viola’s male character in disguise, looking very similar to Boy George in his days of ‘Karma Chameleon’, she decides she must have him.
All performances were incredibly impactful and strong. The cast were a collaborative team, but Rylance has such a superb sense of timing and diction and how to use Shakespeare’s language to wring out the most meaning for the audience. The moment Cesario and twin Sebastian appear on the stage together for the first time , Olivia exclaims ‘Most wonderful!’ A fresh interpretation from the one which implied a miracle: we as the audience know she is goggle-eyed, considering the prospect of a ménage a trois and we oblige with spontaneous laughter.
Olivia is in charge but her attraction to Cesario is a sucker punch to her omnipotence, and it is this new found frailty and dependence which swings from cool mistress to besotted girl which inspires the humour. We find ourselves, like the groundlings of the 1600s, laughing raucously at the innuendo jokes which would never be noticeable in a straight performance done entirely for the type of middle class audiences who laugh politely in the right places. Yet Rylance remains credible, a dilemma of delicate femininity and a woman who rules her own world. It is fun and frivolous, but never a pantomime.
The scene between Orsino and Viola/Cesario annoyed me when I was in year 8, when Orsino says such lines as:
There is no woman’s sides
Can bide the beating of so strong a passion
As love doth give my heart; no woman’s heart
So big, to hold so much. They lack retention.
But this scene was tenderly homoerotic. Orsino is not the priggish macho aristocrat here: we realise that his words are currently mistaken as Viola gazes at him through the eyes of Cesario, but we forgive him, because she does, and also because the rapport between the characters promises such passion and hope for change. This too is why the scene is humorous but also full of tension and romance. It’s perfectly positioned to pave the way for the action and confusion which follows.
While Stephen Fry as Malvolio and his rowdy tormentors create the slapstick which the groundlings would have revelled in, Rylance and the actors play out the love triangle and confusion of identity with intelligent comedy, wit and farce, a great homage to how Shakespeare should be done. I just felt really happy to be in the audience: no numb bum moments, which can be the case with some productions – we were truly transported and delighted throughout. If I didn’t understand Shakespeare’s comedies before, this production made every opportunity crystal clear.
I also saw Rylance as Richard the Third, a performance rich in self-loathing and machiavellian exploitation. But perhaps that production is for another blog.
As we remember Shakespeare’s birthday, and his death on April 23rd, 400 years ago, we can contemplate an important part of our culture which may once have been the property of the middle class audiences who, due to their elitist backgrounds, understood or claimed to understand what it all meant. But it didn’t start that way. Shakespeare’s plays were the top dramas and soap operas of his time, played for fun, for laughter, for passion, loved by all who saw them, whatever age, class or background.
It is thanks to brilliant actors like Rylance and his cast, and thanks to the dedication of outstanding modern teachers who make Shakespeare’s plays fresh, accessible and meaningful that those times are here again. We can all enjoy Shakespeare; we can understand the meaning of every line in context, and new and exciting interpretations enable us to build bonds with the characters and make the storylines contemporary and meaningful without losing their original impact. The curtains have been drawn and we have been shown the picture. And what a great picture it is too.
If I could go back to my dry and diffident English teacher, I’d still say thanks, though. She may not have taken me to where I was always going to go, but I had a seat in the room and a book marked ‘Shakespeare’. And from that starting point, the journey was always going to be exciting.