Twelfth Night? I don't believe it!

Last night we went to see Twelfth Night, an RSC production in Duke of York theatre, London. This has to be one of my favourite of Shakespeare’s comedies, largely because it was my first foray into the world of acting. Actually that’s not true, I was a non-singing named character in a school musical called Damn Yankees, and I wrote several skits over the years which I performed at annual comedy evenings. The sort of comedy evenings which probably would not be at all amusing without large quantities of alcohol. Fortunately these were well before the days when poor students could afford video cameras and you were lucky if you even had a phone in your house, let alone in your pocket.


The plot of Twelfth Night is partly about mistaken identity, asking the audience to be generous with their disbelief of ‘identical’ but different gender twins, and partly about gulling an authority figure who thinks he is chocolate. In the warm, open-air, Everyman Summer festival of 2001 I let loose on the amateur theatre going world my Sir Andrew Aguecheek. In this production, my counterpart was James Fleet (who also played the idiot son, Hugo Horton, in the Vicar of Dibley).


Much to my chagrin (no, not really – he is a professional actor after all) he did a much better job than I could ever have done. His comic timing was really excellent and his delivery of the strange Malapropistic phrases Shakespeare passes his way, was convincing. The chemistry (I vowed I would not use that word) between him and person leading him astray, Sir Toby Belch was not as convincing as you would hope. They are usually played as old friends, with Sir Andrew naively following Sir Toby’s lead and pay his bar tab for the pleasure. It felt like the director had gone for an interpretation where Sir Toby had heard that Sir Andrew was completely unknown to him, except by virtue of him being rich. I suppose it is fair enough.


Another interesting casting decision was provided in the form of Richard Wilson (anyone over a certain age will remember him as the acerbic, Victor Meldrew). The title of the play during the restoration period was Malvolio, probably because of its parallel with the subjugation of Oliver Cromwell.


The character Malvolio (played by Richard Wilson) is the steward of a lady’s household, but has designs on her above his station.  He conducts himself with a superior air, and snaps chiding remarks to other servants and even the gentlemen of the house. He is brought down a peg or several, ridiculed, imprisoned in the dark, and eventually shown what a silly billy he’s been. He is quite unrepentant and his last line ‘I will be revenged on the whole pack of you’, sums his character as one who can give but cannot take.


The reason for the name of the play ‘Twelfth Night’ is a bit mysterious. The action does not happen at twelfth night, also known as the feast of the Epiphany (6 January), when the the Wise Men appeared to adore the baby Jesus. There is only one passing reference to a 12th night, but it is in the song ‘On the twelfth day of December’ that Toby Belch sings at Malvolio, and not the twelfth day of Christmas (Christmas day would be day one).  This is perhaps why after Shakespeare’s death the name ‘Malvolio’ was adopted.


The reason might be because of a tragedy in Shakespeare’s life.


Not very much is known about the playwrite’s life, which has made some crazy conspiracy theorists believe he did not exist. I have no doubt that he did exist. He also had three children. Two were twins called Hamnet (alarmingly similar in name to the eponymous play of his, Hamlet) and his  sister Judith. Hamnet died at the age eleven, but had been baptised on the feast of Candlemas (2 February) 1585, which is also the day that the play was first performed in 1602. Many people believe that Twelfth night is a dedication to Hamnet, with a sister missing her twin so much that she becomes him.


However, Epiphany had in the Elizabethan era become something of party time of year. The wise men arriving was seen as a time of fun and gifts being given. The revelry that is mentioned throughout the play (which Sir Andrew and Sir Toby mostly instigate), could also have been partly the inspiration.


The thing which bothers me is that although Twelfth Night/Epiphany was a time when there were lots of parties it does not seem to be a strong enough basis for the name of the play. It was usual for children to be baptisted very soon after birth, so that if bad thing happen to them, the devil can’t get his hands on them. I wonder if Hamnet and Judith were actually born on Twelfth Night. Who knows? There aren’t any birth records surviving.


I should point out that if you are thinking of seeing Twelfth Night, do go and see it. The relationship between Viola (as her male alter-ego)  and Olivia develops wonderfully, and you can really see why Olivia is so besotted with him/her. Absolutely stunning performances from both of them, Nancy Caroll and Alexandra Gilbreath. Richard Wilson did not steal the show as much as I hoped he would, when he appeared ‘devilishly cross-gartered’ but he was still very entertaining.


This morning we went out for breakfast and happened on another member of the Vicar of Dibley family, Gary Waldhorn (David Horton). We exchanged a few words and he was a really sweet, friendly old man. Both that and seeing Twelfth Night have cheered me up no end.