Queering Shakespeare at the Abbey: Wayne Jordan’s Twelfth Night

There’s a very good production of Twelfth Night at the Abbey right now, directed by Wayne Jordan.

Since the Abbey first staged Shakespeare in 1928, when Denis Johnston produced a King Lear that was influenced by European ideas about design, the theatre has always used Shakespeare’s plays to give young directors and practitioners a chance to change (and renew) Irish theatre practice. Yeats and Lennox Robinson chose Johnston to direct Lear because they saw him as a potential Artistic Director of the theatre, someone who could stop the Abbey from falling into the hands of the conservative faction that ultimately did gain control after Yeats’s death. And from 1936 to 1971 Shakespeare went unproduced at that theatre: when asked why, Ernest Blythe explained that the Abbey ‘does not do foreign playwrights’.

As part of the process of renewal in the theatre in the 1970s, the Peacock hosted productions of Twelfth Night and Much Ado directed by a young Joe Dowling, who used the experimental space to highlight the excellence of the emerging generation of Irish actors. The press reports from that time buzz with excitement about the youth and enthusiasm of Dowling’s cast. There was also a visiting production of Timon of Athens and a reportedly beautiful production of Midsummer Night’s Dream from Tomas Mac Anna.

The trend continued. In 1980, Patrick Mason did a Winter’s Tale in the Peacock which featured Liam Neeson and Colm Meany. In 1983, the British director Michael Bogdanov staged Hamlet on the main stage – only three years after he had been prosecuted for obscenity for his production of Romans in Britain at the NT in London. In the early 1990s, around the time that he was delighting the country with the satirical radio programme Scrap Saturday, Gerry Stembridge directed a hilarious country and western version of The Comedy of Errors, starring Pauline McLynne, Mikel Murfi and many others who would go on to have major careers.

Closer to our own times, Conall Morrison in 1999 gave us a Tempest that marked both the end of Patrick Mason’s tenure at the Abbey and the beginning of the Peace Process. We had the Mark O’Rowe-edited 1 Henry IV at the Peacock in 2002, directed by Jimmy Fay. And under Fiach Mac Conghail, we’ve had Romeo and Juliet, Comedy of Errors and Julius Caesar by Jason Byrne, Macbeth by Jimmy Fay, and Selina Cartmell’s King Lear last year.

In short, the Abbey is anomalous as a national theatre (in a good way), in that Shakespeare is not seen as something to be dusted down and trotted out dutifully. Rather, Shakespeare is the vehicle the theatre uses when it wants to infuse new energy, new personnel, and new ideas into its repertoire. The plays are usually handled faithfully – we don’t get substantial cuts or major reinterpretations – so most of the innovation happens in the areas of casting and design. And the aim is almost always to surprise us, to do something we haven’t seen before. Not every production achieves this goal, of course – and I do not think this trend always results from a conscious decision on the part of the theatre’s programmers. But it is certainly evident.

And it continues at present with Jordan’s work, which has a very young and inexperienced cast and crew – who bring to the play a spirit of enthusiasm and iconoclasm, but who also display rigour, discipline and technical accomplishment. The aesthetic and outlook of Jordan’s raucous Alice in Funderland is carried forward into this production, but whereas Alice tended to divide audiences (people either loved it or hated it), Twelfth Night is likely to please the theatre’s regular audience-members while having the potential to delight first-time visitors to the Abbey also.

The first feature to mention is the acting. Mark O’Halloran’s casting as Malvolio received a lot of attention in the lead-up to the opening night – and he delivers on expectations. His Malvolio is ridiculous, but if we laugh at him, O’Halloran ensures we can also sympathise with him to some extent too.

Mark O'Halloran in _Twelfth Night_

Mark O’Halloran in _Twelfth Night_

Also enjoyable are Nick Dunning and Mark Lambert, who have a lot of fun as Sir Toby and Sir Andrew: I felt that the audience only fully relaxed when this pair appeared onstage, and there was a noticeable quickening in the audience’s energy every time they returned.

Ger Kelly’s Feste is, simply, beautiful: he has an extraordinarily vocal range, and sings with an emotional restraint that commanded an intensity of attention that you rarely get in the Abbey (or anywhere else). On Twitter, someone wrote that every time Kelly sang it was as if time had stopped. That’s an accurate way of describing it, I think – I found myself forgetting the play, forgetting where I was, and simply taking pleasure in the song.

But the real revelation, to me anyway, was the performance of Natalie Radmall-Quirke as Olivia. She occupies the stage with impressive authority and, of all the actors, has most control over the language: she understands everything she is saying and makes sure that the audience understands it too. Watching her, I found myself being often reminded of the performances that Patrick Mason used to evoke from Jane Brennan in the 1990s, in plays like Saint Joan and Tom Murphy’s The Wake. There was something indefinable and unique about Brennan: you’d never encourage another actor to imitate her way of acting, but you’d never try to stop Brennan from doing it either – and it involved an unusual ability to combine total precision in movement and line delivery with an emotional honesty that always seemed to be skirting dangerously with the possibility of collapse. Radmall-Quirke is similar here: her performance has an emotional authenticity and bravery that is matched by the care of her technique. I had no idea that she is this good.

Natalie Radmall-Quirke (Olivia) and Elaine Fox (Valentine) in Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare. Directed by Wayne Jordan. Photography by Ros Kavanagh. Photo taken from www.abbeytheatre.ie/

Natalie Radmall-Quirke (Olivia) and Elaine Fox (Valentine) in Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare. Directed by Wayne Jordan. Photography by Ros Kavanagh. Photo taken from http://www.abbeytheatre.ie/

Also very interesting, however, is Wayne Jordan’s decision to bring to the play a queer aesthetic. In his programme note, he writes as follows:

The queer nature of Twelght Night is undeniable. The queering of class, gender and sexuality is at the core of the play’s alchemy. Viola finds her sexuality while dressed as a boy, Olivia falls in love with a boy who’s really a girl and then sleeps with her brother who’s really a boy. Orsino, who affects to love Olivia, falls in love with a boy who’s really a girl. And this is to point to the most obvious of manifestations. Originally written to be played by boy actors, the erotic sexuality of the drama is arresting in a new and challenging way to each new audience and age.

 

That reading of the play is of course entirely justified and indeed has been given many times before (albeit never in Ireland, to the best of my knowledge). But Jordan’s reading of the play in terms of sexuality gives the play a political edge that feels very timely: the production was planned before Panti’s Noble Call, but it is impossible not to see Twelfth Night as a continuation of the conversation that Panti initiated.

This is particularly noticeable in terms of the play’s treatment of marriage. As in Merchant of Venice, the play concludes with a man called Antonio left bereft because the younger man that he loves has married a woman. In Merchant, Bassanio’s marriage to Portia is construed mainly in mercenary terms: while he later talks of loving Portia, at the start of the play he describes his decision to seek her out for marriage as an investment that will revive his financial fortunes.

Likewise here, Sebastian’s marriage to Olivia is seen as a betrayal of his prior relationship with Antonio. That relationship is portrayed with real intimacy: we first see the pair entwined together in a bed, semi-naked – and this is one of the production’s only moments of genuine emotional closeness. Conor Madden as Antonio seems blinded to Sebastian’s selfishness and vapidity: Antonio loves him even as he seems largely undeserving of love.

Conor Madden (Antonio) and Gavin Fullam (Sebastian) in Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare. Directed by Wayne Jordan. Photography by Ros Kavanagh.

Conor Madden (Antonio) and Gavin Fullam (Sebastian) in Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare. Directed by Wayne Jordan. Photography by Ros Kavanagh.

The genuine love of these two men is thus disrupted and betrayed by the need to impose a normative version of heterosexual marriage upon Sebastian. “I am not what I am,” says Viola during the play – but if the action ends with her coming out about who she really is, it also involves Sebastian closeting himself away, perhaps definitively, in a marriage that he seems to have no genuine interest in. The impact that this has both on Antonio and Olivia feels devastating. Jordan shows that Shakespeare’s comedic marriages are almost always more unsettling than the sight of a stage full of corpses that we find in the tragedies.

So while it be an exaggeration to see this Twelfth Night as an intervention into debates about marriage equality, it is also true that this production feels urgent and contemporary: it could not have been done in this way a year ago, nor could it be received in this way a year from now. This recalled for me those great interventions by Patrick Mason from the 1990s, where he sought to place sexuality at the centre of the Abbey’s national conversation by directing plays by Frank McGuinness, Tony Kushner, Oscar Wilde and Thomas Kilroy – and by using the Abbey’s social capital to call for gay rights in Ireland and the US (I’ve written more about that in chapter 5 of this book).

By focussing on the cruelty of Sebastian, Jordan also brings out the cruelty of the other characters. Lambert’s Sir Andrew is also left bereft at the end, and we worry what will come of Viola, Olivia and Maria who, like almost all of Shakespeare’s comic heroines, are vastly more interesting than the men they end the play with. And then of course there is poor Malvolio.

As a result of the focus on cruelty, I was struck in a way that I’d never experienced before by the links between Twelfth Night and Othello. Both plays show what happen when an outsider tries to transgress a social boundary: Othello and Malvolio are both persecuted for publicly expressing  love for a woman who would ordinarily be beyond their reach. Both plays explore disguise – the meaning and consequences of that wonderful phrase “I am not what I am”, which appears in the two plays – both for theatre and for our lives. And both argue that society’s response to difference is usually likely to involve intolerance and perhaps even violence.

But they also show how we are attracted to difference: to the wondrous strangeness of Othello’s stories, to the charismatic nihilism of Iago, to the hilarious cruelty of Andrew, Toby and Maria in Twelfth Night, to the beauty of the vacuous Sebastian. The fear of difference, these plays suggest, is the fear of those aspects of ourselves that we are only partially willing to acknowledge.

If I ran a theatre and didn’t have to make any money or attract any audiences, I’d love to play Twelfth Night in rep with Othello, cross-casting Olivia with Emilia, Feste with Iago (as may originally have happened – Robert Armin is reputed to have played both roles), Othello with Antonio, Viola with Desdemona, Orsino with Cassio, and so on.

Meanwhile, back in the real world…

I don’t want to imply that this is a perfect production. It begins with music and ends with dancing – concluding with the actors (or characters?) being covered in water, perhaps being washed clean of the roles they have played. Both images were visually compelling, but I was unable to determine how exactly they cohered with the rest of the play. And because the stage is often empty – with the wings unmasked, and the backstage wall left bare (aside from the words “What You Will” painted in large letters), I sometimes had trouble hearing some of the lines – that is, the sound seemed to disappear off into the wings (I suspect we may read more about that in one of the Sunday papers tomorrow). And while there has been a lot of praise for the production’s inclusion of a song by Prodigy, I found this a little unnecessary and mildly trivialising – and again didn’t really understand what its purpose was, aside from being very funny. Finally, I thought it took a while for the production to get going: as I mention above, I felt that the audience didn’t fully relax into the play until Dunning and Lambert appeared. I think Jordan’s recent productions of Threepenny Opera and Enemy of the People were tighter, more disciplined and more coherent.

But I suspect that the purpose of this Twelfth Night is not to be perfect but to shake things up. There is a definite feeling of a new generation staking its claim to the future of the Abbey. And there is a definite feeling that this play is for Ireland today – just as Mason’s productions spoke to the Ireland that had just decriminalised homosexuality in the early 1990s.  To a far greater extent than any Shakespeare play I’ve seen at the Abbey, it is in conversation with Ireland today: inviting us to see things differently, to see difference itself more accurately and more sympathetically.

One final note: music and song in the play is composed by Tom Lane, and, to use a cliché, his work is worth the price of admission alone. That cliché is not actually inappropriate when it comes to the Abbey: in the early years of the theatre, there was an orchestra that used to play three or four movements during the intervals. Quite a large number of people used to come to the Abbey specifically to hear the music – that is, they would not bother with the plays but would stay for the interval entertainment. I never quite understood the idea of coming to the theatre specifically for the music until I’d seen this production:  I heard someone say afterwards that they’d love to get the soundtrack. I can myself imagine going back specifically to enjoy the songs and music again. So I would suggest that it is worth seeing this production if only to be able to recall when you first saw a production with music by Tom Lane (assuming you have never heard his work before, of course).

The show is quite long – finishing just before 11. And I know that for some people that is likely to be a bit off-putting. But this is a very good production, and it feels like a special moment for our theatre also.