The first time that I saw Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, I was bored with it. I knew that it was supposed to be a comedy, but I found very little humour in it. It was not entertaining – it was like watching a lecture. The actors seemed to treat the play like it was sacrosanct and important. Even the clownish characters could not save it. Granted, this was a long time ago and perhaps my recollection is clouded by my being a teenager at the time, but I didn’t leave the theatre feeling like I had enjoyed the show. I think most of the audience had a similar reaction.
So I was both excited and dreading to see the play again! (In the meantime, I had seen part of the film version and had not really enjoyed it much either, but I think I might have simply missed most of it.) I am very glad that I did.
Unlike films or television shows, plays are never the same. Actors, directors, costumes, staging, and audiences change. Each version brings something different. This is especially true for Shakespeare’s plays, since they have been continuously adapted since the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. Whether it is changing musical styles, costume choices, the fact that women now actually play female roles (and often male or androgynous ones as well), or setting updates, the experience for the audience keeps changing.
Most importantly, directors and actors need to remember that Shakespeare intended for his comedies to be funny! To be sure, they were not supposed to be outright slapstick, but Twelfth Night is more reminiscent of a sitcom than anything else.
Luckily, this time, I felt like I was watching such a show! The actors interacted with the audience (even if it was simply shrugging their shoulders helplessly) and played their parts in a suitably over-the-top fashion. There was music that the audience could clap along to and it was clear that everyone was supposed to be having a good time. Well, except for a couple of characters who are the butt of a lot of jokes, but such is the nature of sitcoms.
Honestly, does this not sound like the plot for a sitcom? Two teenagers – a male/female twin pair, no less – get stranded and each think the other one is dead. The girl dresses as a boy to get a job and ends up falling in love with her boss, who is interested in a wealthy young heiress who won’t give him the time of day. Her boss sends his errand “boy” – whom he is finding uncomfortably attractive – to talk to the heiress (also a teenager, in all likelihood), but she ends up falling in love with the errand boy instead, much to the latter’s distaste. Then, to complicate matters, the twin brother shows up in town! Plus, there is an amusing sideplot involving the heiress’s servants, her drunken uncle, and her uncle’s foppish drinking buddy.
Really, this is not a plot to take too seriously. It is supposed to be light entertainment that the audience can follow along and figure out exactly what is going to happen next. Just because it is classic literature doesn’t mean it is to be performed devoid of life!