Perhaps the most critically highly regarded of Shakespeare’s comedies, Twelfth Night is increasingly popular with American audiences and is now produced professionally more often than all the others save A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Romeo and Juliet (a 2013 revival was nominated for six Tony awards, winning two). It has the power to make audiences roar with laughter, ache with the pain of romantic longing, and recoil at human cruelty. It has been played variously as high-spirited farce and psychological realism, as Brechtian metatheatre and Chekhovian drama. It confronts issues of gender representation and identity, and it ponders the melancholy of love. As its rich and varied stage history attests, Twelfth Night, as much as any other play in the canon, challenges actors, designers, and directors with a wide array of choices that have far-reaching consequences in performance.
The play is especially difficult to pull off in performance because of its range of moods. It contains some of Shakespeare’s most affecting writing about love, but the baiting of Malvolio can come off as unjustly cruel. It takes place in the imaginary world of Illyria, a country in which all the people are mad, caught up in delusions of their own making. It probes the limits of romantic love (do we love the person, the gender, the social class, or a reflected image of ourselves?) It is finally about the relationship between fantasy and truth.
Clements Theatre has an ongoing commitment to exploring classic works in ways that resonate with modern audiences. Our current production adopts a high-concept approach, fusing Shakespeare’s comedy with the pop culture narcissism of rock and roll. From its beginning, rock and roll was a public pose, a howl of individualism in the face of social conformity. It was liberating, but in its excesses, it also found its own limitations—the self-involvement, the isolation, the need for an audience—rock’s history has no shortage of sad endings.
Twelfth Night, like The Taming of the Shrew and As You Like It before it, makes a strong case that love should be our principal vocation, that true love is selfless and liberating, and that in order to achieve liberation, norms need to be challenged. If, like Viola, we are all castaways on an unfamiliar shore, then being true to ourselves is the best that we can do.