I never get tired of Twelfth Night. Last night, I got to see a boisterous production in NYC that my brother’s been working on. (Runs through this weekend, details and tickets here). The show began with Sir Toby and Sir Andrew Aguecheek teaching the audience the lyrics for some of their drinking songs, so we can join in during the show proper. (“Go ahead and take a wife / you still will drink away your life / So drink up! Cause what you really want is more /MORE BEER!”).
Perhaps because of the way the show begins, or the prevalence of song, or the audience participation (I was pulled up and veiled to be one of Olivia’s decoy ladies) or the beer included gratis with your tickets, but the reveling knights felt like they set the emotional baseline of the show in this production. So Olivia’s mourning and Malvolio’s puritanism made them feel more lonely and set apart from the beginning of the show. Orsino’s melancholy made him feel a little more connected to Olivia (with whom he does not share a scene until the final confrontation) since both characters did not participate in the loud, raucous singing with the audience.
But it’s very hard to make Twelfth Night work as a straight comedy because of the torture visited on poor Malvolio. He is deceived, imprisoned, and nearly driven out of his senses. Just as all the characters are pairing up to marry, his final line and exit are “I’ll be revenged on the whole pack of you!” And though Orsino sends people after him to “entreat him to a peace” there is no resolution to his suffering onstage.
After his yellow stocking scene, Malvolio reenters this production during one of the songs. Maria, Sir Toby, Sir Andrew, and Feste have pulled most of the audience up to dance, and Malvolio is pushed into the center of the dance gagged, blindfolded, and with his hands bound. Most of the audience, me included, started to move back to our seats, assuming the action of the play was about to resume, but we were motioned back up.
But now, in the midst of the singing, Malvolio was being struck and stripped. Then, actors drew audience members next to him to take photos with him in the style of Abu Ghraib. I was rocked by nausea and broke out in a sweat when I made it back to my seat.
The company made the carousing crowd complicit in Malvolio’s humilation, and our guilt was brought to catharsis by Sir Toby. He was the character who was easiest to identify with. He sang with the audience and frequently shared a laugh with us behind Sir Andrew’s back as he toyed with him. So, it felt as though he were speaking for us, when he said, more in sorrow than impatience, “I would we were well rid of this knavery. If he may be conveniently delivered, I would he were, for I am now so far in offence with my niece that I cannot pursue with any safety this sport to the upshot.”
Just as Olivia’s melancholy is mended, so, too, Sir Toby’s hedonism is tempered by humility. I found his marriage to Maria more plausible and less contrived in this production, since it felt like he had grown up. Arguably, Toby is one of the more stable characters at the end of the play, since Orsino, Viola, and Olivia have only just been delivered of their near brush with madness. The contradictory stories about Cesario’s/Sebastian’s whereabouts and activities unintentionally can serve the same purpose as Feste’s lies to Malvolio (Sayest thou that house is dark? / As hell, Sir Topas. / Why it hath bay windows transparent as barricadoes). Both sets of contradictions shake characters sense of sanity.
In the final confrontation, I kept laughing at the confusion of Antonio and Olivia and Sir Andrew, as they try to untangle to bilocations of Cesario/Sebastian, but I also felt profound relief that the revelation of the twins was coming soon, and that the characters wouldn’t be perplexed for much longer. I wanted the joke to go on, but not past the point where it would be painful.
In college, I ended up writing a paper on Malvolio, Christopher Sly, and their relation to the carnival fools as described by Bakhtin. If you’d like to check it out, you can read it here: “Carnival without Consequence: The Problem of Christopher Sly and Malvolio.”