Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare

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BBC Radio 7, 6 January 2011
This 1993 production shifted the action to an unspecified Caribbean island; by such means director Nigel Bryant turned the play into a variation on The Tempest, with the dramatis personae thrown together by fate - rather than by choice - and learning to adapt to changed surroundings. This provided the basis for a searching analysis of the politics of gender. Once disguised as Cesario, Viola (Eve Matheson) learned very quickly that Orsino (Michael Maloney) and Olivia (Carolyn Backhouse) had designs on her. The only way she could resist them was to become something of a chameleon, behaving in different ways to both of them. This herculean task proved beyond her capabilities: Sir Toby Belch (Joss Ackland) understood that she lacked sufficient strength to fight a duel, and thus persuaded her to fight Sir Andrew Aguecheek (William Chubb) for the sole purpose of laughing at both of them. Viola's humiliation emphasized the social construction of gender - to become a 'male' it was necessary to behave in a certain way.
At the same time we were made well aware that those who criticized Viola for her presumed lack of masculinity were themselves guilty of the same faults. Sir Toby spent most of his days in an alcoholic haze, ever ready to dish out insults but completely unable to acquit himself in a duel. He was no match for the lithe Sebastian (Simon Fielder). Malvolio (Iain Cuthbertson) reproved both Maria (Adjoa Andoh) and Sir Toby for their lack of 'femininity' and 'masculinity' in their behaviour, but he was eventually reduced to a mincing, effeminate prig spouting forth protestations of love for Olivia and completely unable to understand why she rejected him. By such means director Bryant underlined the fragility of gender construction: while men and women are expected to behave in different ways, the task often proves beyond them.
Yet perhaps this shortcoming was only to be expected in a decadent Illyrian world hell-bent on self-indulgence. Orsino revelled in reciting love-poetry in which no courtly love cliche was left out. Olivia took her grief to such lengths that she even spoke her lines in funereal tones. Maria consistently neglected her duties as a servant, preferring instead to participate in the various ruses designed to humiliate Malvolio. She took a sadistic pleasure in the steward's suffering - cackling to herself in the background as Malvolio talked to Feste (Rudolph Walker) disguised as Sir Topas. This was a particularly nasty sequence, which made us feel quite sorry for Malvolio: when he spat out the line at the end of the play "I'll be reveng'd on the whole pack of you!" we felt that he had considerable justification for doing so. If revenge could help rid Illyria of its stifling self-indulgence, so much the better.
But perhaps the gods had already resolved to intervene on Malvolio's behalf. As Feste sang the final song ("When that I was and a little tiny boy") an omnious rumble of thunder could be heard in the background, signifying some kind of retribution for what had passed in the previous four acts.
In its determination to emphasize the shortcomings of the Illyrian world, Bryant's production was markedly short on laughs. However it did contain some noteworthy performances: Ackland's Sir Toby enjoyed rolling his tongue round Shakespeare's speeches, particularly when under the influence of alcohol. Walker's Feste was a versatile performer - his voice for Sir Topas bore a strong resemblance to that of the old Aldwych farceur Robertson Hare - while Maloney's Orsino took great pleasure in embellishing all his speeches with heroic cadences, even if what he was saying was for the most part cliched.