Twelfth Night is one of the most difficult of Shakespere’s comedies to pull of. Firstly the story is just bloody convoluted. In fact both stories in the play are bloody convoluted. Secondly, it is bloody long. But on a good day, its one of the funniest things you can watch. From a preview its hard to know whether a production will border on the sublime or bore you of your seat. But the omens are looking very good indeed.
One of the really encouraging omens is the novel interpretation that director Chloe Cheung has brought to the table. A cursory glance at the theatrical skies (stalking their facebook page) will tell you that this production is set in the roaring twenties. Prolonged celestial divination will take you to their excellent trailer, filmed like an early black and white Hollywood film. Chatting to Chloe and the cast, you can see why this decision makes a lot of sense.
The twenties like the late Elizabethan era, were years on the cusp of modernity. For the Elizabethans this modernity was embodied in a burgeoning rationalization of the known world. For the roaring twenties however, this was a modernity defined by a fragmentation of the known world. Yet both periods represent fundamental shifts not only in the assumed epistemology of an epoch but also the assumed norms of social and sexual life.
This liminal status of thitherto un-breachable norms invites all manner of comedic potential. Most obviously this involves the possible jokes from confusions of gender, sexuality and class. Yet any confusion presupposes an established code the transgression of which gives these misunderstandings their subversive (and comedic) weight. The key difficulty therefore enlies in the fact that the presuppositions of the twenties are not the same presuppositions of the Elizabethan era. Put crudely, racy 1600s is probably tame 1920s. What will be fascinating therefore is how the fledgling transgressions of the Elizabethans square with the fledgling permissivity of the twenties. At worst the intermingling of contexts will appear out of place. But at best it might offer a cross cultural-historical dissection of the nature of transgression. In the redrawing of the boundaries the same in every era? Is the emancipation from gender and sexual norms connected to a parallel emancipation in class? Most tantalizingly what can this tell us about the new freedoms of our own postmodernity?
The further possible difficulty is that the nature of the two modernities are so different. Yes both periods elicited social change, but perhaps the two periods are simply too incommensurable with each other. For example the angular deconstruction of space in cubism versus the flowing baroque in the art of Rubens. This is not merely an aesthetic disjunction, but evidence of a fundamental break in the very conceptions of the world. With this in mind it begs the question of whether the common denominator of sexual and social progress is adequate grounds to group the two together.
How these issues will be treated and ultimately resolved I think is half the draw of the production. Such an audacious premise demands attention and on these grounds alone you can be sure that will be one to watch. The other half of the draw is the wonderful cast. Enthusiastic to the bone, their energy and buoyance could really be felt in the rehearsal room. Francesca Nicholls brings a breathy and exasperated aloofness to the role of Olivia. A characterization which works perfectly by allowing her to naturally switch from disdainful aristocrat to effortless flirt in seconds. Other highlights include Lucy Clarke as the rambunctious Belch. Her interaction with Maria played by Violet Adams is wonderfully entertaining. Their natural rapport bears witness to their previous dramatic collaboration. All in all this promises to be a fascinating addition to late Trinity Garden play fodder, but its potential pitfalls cannot be denied. But I very much look forward to finding out what the end result will be.