My first ever visit, yesterday evening, to see a production at The Folger Theatre in Washington DC – Twelfth Night – happened to coincide with the very final performance of the present season. Outside the venerable building in Capitol Hill, I overheard members of the company discussing post-performance party plans.
In retrospect, the whole situation was fitting, because perhaps more than any other play by Shakespeare, Twelfth Night represents a last hurrah of sorts – it was the dramatist’s last truly fun-loving play. After Twelfth Night, his comic sensibility would become more complex and troubled as is evidenced by works like Measure for Measure and All’s Well That Ends Well. “What you Will” morphed into “what you must.”
Robert Richmond’s wonderfully madcap production also represents a last hurrah. The director’s take is set in 1915 aboard an opulent, sinking cruise ship (modeled on the famed Lusitania) with a massive, round stained glass window, keeling precipitously over the stage having lost some of its delicate panes.
Aboard their Illyrian pleasure boat, the brilliant ensemble cast pushes the party atmosphere to its limits. Everyone on stage is a lord or lady of misrule, seemingly governed by groin, spleen and/or heart. Like the ship’s mast breaking in the storm that precedes the action, these characters all lost their heads long ago.
The songs, performed live on stage accompanied by a gorgeous grand piano with a transparent, curlicue body that would make Liberace happy, as well as assorted ukuleles, cellos, clarinets and accordions, are jubilant-lyrical odes to love. Balanced against this euphoria, though, is malice.
This nasty edge is most visible in the treatment of Malvolio (the superbly pompous yet lovable Richard Sheridan Willis, who steals the show.) When Sir Toby Belch and Feste goad the steward and accuse him of lunacy as he lies helpless inside the filigree body of that gorgeous piano, the prevailing atmosphere is sinister and sadistic. I only wished that the colorful lighting palette could have been muted in that scene to fit the ominous mood. Music, as symbolized by the piano-prison, at that moment becomes a source of torture. In this reality, Malvolio’s puritan way of life perversely starts to make sense.
The early 20th century seems to be looming large right now in the popular imagination, from Baz Luhmann’s Gatsby to Downton Abbey. The idea of a loss of innocence, of western society drunkenly staggering towards the chaos of World War I and the stock market crash, seems to echo an unease that people feel right now about our own culture, where the carefree excesses of the 1990s and early 2000s are perceived to be pushing us over a precipice.
This production of Twelfth Night bristles and dances with the same, intoxicating energy. Just as Viola (Emily Trask) — standing under the stained glass window on stage that also looks like a massive, looming clock — understands that only time can untangle the chaos of people’s affections, so the distance of a century provides us with a way of making sense of our present whirligig.