A young director's examination how gender is performed on stage especially within the works of William Shakespeare

13 October 2012

'We will draw you the curtain and show you the picture'

Some friends and I were lucky enough to see Tim Carroll’s all-male Twelfth Night at the Globe last weekend. I’ve been trying to get some thoughts down for a few days now and wanted to share some impressions.

We were fortunate enough to have gone on a blazing sunny day. I have attended a couple of performances at the Globe where I got absolutely drenched, as there is no roof over where the groundlings stand. It ain’t a pleasant experience I can tell you! Thankfully we were spared nature’s wash and had a decent view from the back of the pit. The acting in the play was superb. Stephen Fry seemed to have been made for playing Malvolio and Mark Rylance was brilliant as Olivia, somehow gliding across the stage as if he had wheels under his skirts. My favourite player though was Paul Chahidi, who played Maria with a kind of gleeful malevolence.

The all-male aspect was intriguing and it certainly shed a different light on things. For a start, I never realised there quite were so many cock jokes in the play. Whenever there was potential for an innuendo, the guiding principle appears to have been ‘stick it in’…I also felt that Viola/Cesario’s lines ‘I am all the brothers of my father’s house and all the daughters’; ‘I am the man’ and her whole smouldering exchange with Orsino where she basically tells him she fancies the pants off him and he’s too obtuse to realise, were all delivered with a bit of a wry smile, a kind of ‘nudge nudge wink wink, look what we’re doing, audience. They’re talking about being women when they’re actually men!’ If I had one criticism of the whole thing it would be that, for me at least, it was lacking a little in subtlety.

It also struck me that the fact of an all-male cast actually serves quite well to remind us how conventional the comedies are, and how they usually end with everyone subscribing to a heteronormative framework, all marrying the person they ‘should’ marry (though see my previous post on Love’s Labour’s Lost). That all the characters were being played by men made – at least for me – the relationships seem more risqué, and the actors certainly played up to that feeling, but in the end we remember that Viola marries Orsino (a great match for her, but he’s just spent the whole play pining after Olivia); and Olivia marries Sebastian (having known him for about 5 minutes and having actually been madly in love with his sister). Sharon Holland, in her essay Is There An Audience For My Play? argues that this is the brilliance of Twelfth Night (and indeed most of the Shakespearean comedies), that we think the world has been turned upside down and subverted, but in actual fact it subscribes strongly to a traditional, patriarchal societal structure, and ‘order is restored’ within quite a narrow and predictable framework.

Chin-strokey, academically minded chat aside, the play was a great afternoon out, at times moving, at other times hilarious. Good fun, and a really interesting production.

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