Surprisingly Shakespearean: Two Gentlemen of Verona (RSC) and Shakespeare in Love (West End)

It might sometimes feel like nothing new can be said about Shakespeare. But I’ve just seen two Shakespearean productions that surprised me, for different reasons: the RSC’s Two Gentlemen of Verona and a new West End adaptation of Shakespeare in Love.

Two Gents is rarely staged so I jumped at the chance to see it in Stratford, having assumed that I’m unlikely to have many opportunities to do so again.

Its reputation is not good. It’s one of Shakespeare’s novice plays, perhaps his first, and certainly his earliest comedy. And it shows all the signs of being a play by an inexperienced writer. As the director Simon Godwin mentions in his very informative programme note, the dialogue in the play is usually shared out between two or at most three characters – a sign that Shakespeare had yet to develop the confidence to sustain conversation across larger groups. He goes on as follows:

There’s directness in the plotting. As playwrights get more experienced, they become oblique in their exposition. Here, characters come on and say “the following things have happened so we must do this immediately”… This play is joyfully clear but sometimes you notice the joins.

With its cross-dressing heroine, and its themes of betrayal and over-hasty reconciliation, it is seen generally as a prototype for later, better plays, especially As You Like It. So in some of the press previews for the production, it’s been presented as an opportunity to see a curiosity: bad Shakespeare done well. That’s been a minor trend lately: we’ve seen strong productions of Timon of Athens by Nick Hytner and Troilus and Cressida by Cheek By Jowl, for example. So I went along with a sense of curiosity but without high expectations.

I was pleasantly surprised. I don’t think the play is a neglected masterpiece, but the production was consistently engaging and entertaining. There’s a courage in giving this flawed play to a director who’s new to the RSC – and he in turn has been courageous in casting actors who seem in most cases to be just out of drama school. This is a young person’s play with a very young cast – and despite their lack of experience, the performances are very good, and in some cases excellent.

As the audience enters the auditorium, the action is already underway – we find onstage an Italian piazza with an outdoor café. The cast lounge about, sipping espressos, playing music, gossiping, perhaps flirting. Some members of the audience are led onstage and given ice-cream: a gimmick that reminded me of John Tiffany’s direction of Oncethe Musical, which opens with the cast already having a session in a bar, at which audiences can buy pints of stout during the interval.

As the action kicks off, there is again a pleasant surprise: the delivery of lines has a clarity that is unusual, even at the RSC. The actors fully understand what they are saying, and they make sure that we do too: there’s some simple and effective use of emphasis, gesture, and body language to make sure we know what’s going on, notably from Martin Bassindale, the actor playing Speed. Also impressive is the way in which the actors have been directed to respond to each other: they clearly understand each other’s lines too. I was also surprised by how literally the lines were delivered. A lot of Shakespearean performances nowadays try to get cheap laughs from playing against Shakespeare’s original meanings, but here the actors just tell Shakespeare’s jokes, even the slightly clunky ones. This might all seem like  very basic stuff (understanding your lines, responding to the other actors), but the quality of the work was strong enough to make many other recent productions of Shakespeare that I’ve seen seem seriously under-rehearsed by comparison.

So by the time the two gents have arrived at Milan, the production has found an easygoing, confident rhythm. And yes, there is a live dog onstage, and yes she steals the show, repeatedly. There are also several musicians who play live throughout: I glumly noted that the RSC have more musicians in the wings than many theatres have actors on stage.

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Roger Morlidge and Mossip

And when the plot flags a bit, the direction finds a way to liven things up, adding in some extra business that enhances the action without changing the meaning of the play. A lively highlight occurs about half-way through the first part of the play, when we find ourselves in a Veronese nightclub, cast and musicians joining together to don sunglasses and dance to music that feels more Brazilian than Italian –  not because Shakespeare wrote this scene (he didn’t) but simply because the characters are young and they want to dance (you can hear the music and see parts of this scene in the trailer below). Here I found myself being reminded of Rupert Goold’s brilliant direction of the ball in his RSC Romeo and Juliet from 2010, in which we find Juliet losing herself in a heavily percussive beat that made it very difficult (for me, anyway) to stay sitting passively – and which established a tone and level of energy that persisted to the play’s conclusion.

In suggesting that Godwin’s work reminded me of Goold and John Tiffany I don’t want to imply that his direction is derivative. What impressed me about him was his willingness to both respect the text (by directing his actors so carefully) while also theatricalising it fully. He has a great scene, for example, when the foppish Turio tries to woo Sylvia by singing up to her as she stands on her balcony. Lest we be distracted by memories of Romeo and Juliet, Godwin has his actor (Nicholas Gerrard-Martin) perform his courtship in the form of a song – one so fabulously bad that we might half-wonder if Silvia might take pity on him after all.

Is it a good play? Well, not really – but we find here that Proteus is more than just an interesting prototype of Iago or Hamlet – and that Julia is more than just a prototype for Rosland and Viola. We also see how, from the beginning, Shakespeare was playing with form: here he gives  us a comedy that concludes with Valentine offering to give up Silvia to Proteus – the man who had just attempted to rape her. Valentine’s proposal that his wedding to Silvia be accompanied by a wedding between Proteus and Julia feels very uncomfortable, in a way that would be repeated (without being much improved upon) in Measure for Measure.

And there are some very good performances. The two female leads are very strong. Many of the female performers I’ve seen in recent RSC productions seemed miscast or out of their depth: they seemed too inclined to use an affected throaty style of line delivery instead of – well, instead of acting. As Julia and Silvia, Pearl Chanda and Sarah Macrae  bring their own individuality to their characters: there is a naturalness and a distinctiveness to the line delivery by both that impressed me very much, especially given that both parts are so horribly underwritten and repetitive (especially Silvia’s).  Chandra’s performance has an apparently effortless quality that makes her transformation from male to female at the end of the play seem both sexually charged and poignant. She’s very  impressive. I am sure we’ll be hearing more about her in the years ahead.

Mark Arends (Proteus) and Pearl Chanda (Julia)

Mark Arends as Proteus and Pearl Chandra as Julia

This production is running on in Stratford for the rest of the summer, and they plan to broadcast it live around the world in early September. I’d recommend it.

Meanwhile, in the West End we have the stage adaptation of Shakespeare in Love, a charming and very smart film that was scripted by Tom Stoppard and Marc Norman. This West End adaptation comes under the Disney banner (co-produced with Sonia Friedman), but it’s also directed by Declan Donnellan, so any fears that it might be a blatantly commercialised production are balanced out by the credibility of the director.

This production has been getting great reviews, and it’s easy to see why. The stage features a large three-story structure that reproduces the architecture of a typical Elizabethan playhouse (as shown below). The design, of course, is by Nick Ormerod, whom Donnellan always works with in their Cheek By Jowl productions.

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Sometimes the action is literally set in a playhouse – for a rehearsal or for the performance of Romeo and Juliet that concluded the film so memorably. Yet even when the action happens in other places, we remain within a theatre, so that even intimate scenes (such as when Will finds his way into Viola’s bedroom) are observed by other members of the cast, who become a silent audience when they are not actively performing. Donnellan has  thoroughly theatricalised the entire performance, which becomes a series of plays within plays: like a dramatic version of a Russian matrushka doll.

And it’s been quite skilfully adapted too (by Lee Hall, who also gave us Billy Elliot). The role of Christopher Marlowe is expanded considerably, so that he now feeds lines to Will in a scene that fills in some of the missing links between  Romeo and Juliet’s balcony scene and Cyrano de Bergerac. These interchanges give Will someone to talk to, making his characterisation easier to understand – and they also intensify the audiene’s distress when Marlowe’s death is revealed (drawing gasps from some of the people watching the play, incidentally – does it require spoiler warnings?).

And as you’d expect, there is some lovely movement around the stage. Donnellan always creates wonderful stage pictures, and does so here too – the image below, for example, is one of the first we see:

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Or there’s this one:

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Such tableaux feel natural and unfussy, and they’re often very pleasing to look at.

Donnellan also makes a virtue of having a simple set. Sometimes we see  action that is “backstage”, sometimes we are seeing it being performed “onstage” – and the flipping back and forth from the stage to behind the scenes offers all the fun of Noises Off, while fleshing out the idea that is at the heart of this adaptation, as it is at the heart of Shakespeare’s work – namely, that the performances of actors merely make explicit what people do in other aspects of their lives: they perform at the court of Elizabeth, or in the arrangement of marriages, or in the application of the law or diplomacy. It might be clichéd to come away from this performance observing that all the world is a stage, but that indeed is the point it wants to make.

So it’s clever and touching and very well directed and beautifully designed and funny….

And yet… It’s slightly disappointing in parts.

The pace isn’t quite right yet, perhaps because the show is still early in its run. The film has many good jokes, but a lot of them were lost when I saw it earlier today – and indeed some of the dialogue was inaudible, at least to me: it was drowned out by stage business or spoken into the back of the stage. I also found it difficult to warm to the performance of Viola (perhaps too much influenced by the ones I’d seen in Two Gents), which I found to be occasionally affected without ever being affecting – I don’t think we have enough time to warm to the character.  So I was surprised to find myself missing Gwyneth Paltrow (having listened to the most recent Coldplay album more often than I should have done, I did not think myself capable of such a feeling…).

And some of the other characterisations felt like missed opportunities.  In the film, Wessex was played as a genuinely unlikable character –  and as someone we could genuinely imagine existing. Here he is written and performed more as a buffoon: full of a bluster that appears designed to hide his own impotence and lust. He’s not much of a threat to Will, and thus the sadness of Viola’s forced marriage to him does not seem quite as upsetting as it did in the film.

I also found the production and script a little too willing to be ingratiating. One of the great things about the film script was that it had so many references to his plays – I loved the way it segued into  Twelfth Night at the end, for example. Most of those references are retained, but (unless I am misremembering) it seems like many more have been added.

Some of them are indeed very funny: “Out Damn Spot” and “Tomorrow and Tomorrow” from Macbeth are deployed to great comic effect (though the reference to Banquo’s ghost from the film feels thrown away here). There’s also an amusing allusion to Malvolio towards the end. But there are some jokes that seem a little too keen to please – a reference to Marc Antony’s speech in Julius Caesar felt a bit obvious to me, and I thought that at one stage I heard the ‘out vile jelly’ line from Lear. And when at the end Romeo and Juliet is declared a “palpable hit” I wondered if the actor was actually going to turn and wink at the audience. So when the actors break off from the curtain call to give us an Elizabethan dance (as would have happened in Shakespeare’s time too, of course), it all feels like they are trying too hard to put a smile on our faces… In short, the Disney starts to show after a while.

There is one new allusion which works well – and that’s the inclusion of a dog (taken straight from Two Gents). But perhaps Shakespeare in Love might have been better off if it had instead taken more notice of the darker elements of Two Gentlemen. The betrayal by one friend of another and the attempted rape of a young woman appear in both plays, but are rushed through here in what feels like a race to get us to the end. Shakespearean comedy is always most successful when its darker elements are emphasised – as when we felt sorry for Malvolio and Olivia in Wayne Jordan’s recent Twelfth Night, for example. But there is no darkness here. There isn’t even much shade.

This is not to say that Shakespeare in Love is bad but rather that it could be (and may still become) better. In its desire to please it seems to betray an anxiety, a wish to be liked, that is perhaps understandable but wholly unnecessary. The play is a hit; it will almost certainly be going to Broadway, and it is likely to be enjoyed there too. We will probably find it showing up in the Grand Canal Theatre in Dublin, sometime around 2022, after it’s been everywhere else. So perhaps the cast will slow down, taking time to flesh out their roles a bit more – and remember that, since this is a comedy, we should spend at least some of the time feeling disturbed and upset.

Having said all that, I am certainly in a minority in my views on Shakespeare in Love – reviews have been largely positive.  Here’s the trailer for Shakespeare in Love:

And the RSC’s Two Gentlemen of Verona

Both are worth seeing – but if you have to pick one I’d recommend the bad Shakespeare done well over the brilliantly directed re-imaginging of Shakespeare – which has the odd effect of seeming to reduce his importance, even as it places him centre-stage.

Timon of Athens returns to Dublin

I am intrigued by news of the forthcoming Dublin production of Timon of Athens at Project Arts Centre.  By my count, this will be the seventh time the play has been staged in Dublin – ever.

It’s thus one of the least performed of Shakespeare’s plays in Dublin: the only plays that have been performed less frequently in the city are Titus Andronicus (3) and Troilus and Cressida and Two Gents (once each). And between 1660 and 1904, there are no records of performances for Pericles, Love’s Labour’s Lost or the three parts of Henry VI.

To put those figures in contrast, between 1660 and 1904, there were 622 productions of Hamlet, 475 of Macbeth, 453 of Richard III, 422 of Othello, and 381 of Romeo and Juliet.  In other words, Shakespeare was always very popular in Dublin – it’s just that Timon itself was for a long time regarded as unstageable and uninteresting.

These figures, by the way, are taken from the Irish Theatrical Diaspora database on Shakespearean Production. The research was done by Deirdre McFeely.

The earliest recorded production of the play in Ireland comes in 1714 at Smock Alley (about 45 years after its first recorded London production). There was another in 1741 in Aungier Street when the role of Apemantus was taken on by the great Anglo-Irish actor James Quin, who had previously played the part in a Covent Garden production.

FirstFolioTimon

 

It was done again in 1761 (on 3 June to be precise), and we actually have quite a good idea of who was in it. Henry Mossop played the lead role, and there is a good cast list in the National Library. Originally from Galway, Mossop had joined the Smock Alley company in the 1740s, before joining Garrick in London. Mossop took over Smock Alley in c. 1760, where he spent a lot of his time trying to fend off competition from a rival company run in Crow Street by Spranger Barry. It’s curious that he chose to stage Timon during this period: it’s not a play that has ever drawn a crowd (until quite recently – more about that below), though it’s notable that it was advertised as a play “written by Shakespeare”. In other words, the marketing strategy was to highlight the author rather than the play. 

It was done again in 1783, again at Smock Alley. And in 1817 the great Edmund Kean played the role in Crow Street. Not much is known about the performance in Dublin, but in 1907 The Irish Times ran a feature about Kean’s performances in Dublin, and it noted that staging of Timon.

We have no other record of a production of the play until 1972 when the Abbey Theatre hosted a visiting production of the play by Glasgow’s Citizens Theatre. The lead role was taken by  Ian McDiarmid, a great actor who is still best known for playing the role of the Emperor Palpatine in Return of the Jedi and those awful prequel films that We Shall Not Mention. In an interview with the Irish Times in 2008, McDiarmid recalled that production with some embarrassment: apparently, a Dubliner in the front row shouted “you’re murdering the Bard” to the actors.  “I could do nothing but agree,” said McDiarmid.

Having said that, reports at the time (again in The Irish Times) berated Dublin audiences for skipping the play (which only ran for a week). Faced with a choice between Timon and the newly-opened Brendan Behan play Richard’s Cork Leg, most Dubliners went for the latter.

The image below shows McDiarmid in a Citizens’ production of Life of Galileo from 1971:

Ian McDiarmid playing Galileo at Citizens theatre

 

The play does crop up in Irish culture from time to time, however. Towards the end of the nineteenth century, there were a lot of public lectures on Shakespeare around the country, and there are records of packed-out public talks about Timon in Cork and Dublin. And it’s quoted from time to time, usually in response to political events of the day. For instance, a letter to The Irish Times about Watergate quotes from the play. And in the 1980s there’s an interesting reference to Charles Haughey and Timon in that newspaper, with particular reference to the links between politics and money: a fascinating example of the Irish tendency to hint at the things that everyone knows but which no-one will say.

The most recent major production of the play was at the National in London, where Nick Hytner re-set the play to contemporary London. Suddenly Timon’s story seemed sadly apt: Shakespeare’s treatment of the relationship between profligacy and debt – and the human and societal cost of bankruptcy – seemed stunningly relevant when re-set to the City of London shortly after the 2008 Crash. And the direction of the poet in the play – performed not just as a sycophant but as a parasite –  highlighted the Faustian pact that artists enter into when they seek patronage from the wealthy.

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In the lead role, Simon Russell Beale (shown above) was (as ever) sympathetic and charismatic.  And the production’s  design and direction managed the difficult trick of making the play seem contemporary without contrasting too heavily with the original text.

But the production didn’t quite dispel my feeling that this is a very odd play. The shift from the first to the second half is thematically interesting but theatrically confusing: Shakespeare matches Timon’s wealth with formal dynamism, while his impoverishment is performed in much longer, more plodding scenes. And where Lear’s loss of everything makes him massively sympathetic, Timon remains difficult to care for.

Hytner addressed these problems with some careful cutting (as well as the inclusion of some passages from Coriolanus), but my feeling about the production was that it found a way to stage Timon that could not be repeated: Hytner had chosen it for a specific time and place, and it had meaning in that context. But could it be revived or toured? Not without the loss of something, I think.

So it’s a play that needs to be cut and/or adapted. Hytner’s adaptation offered one approach; the 1817 version was also an adaptation and it’s likely that the versions staged in the 1700s  were not of the original play but of Thomas Shadwell’s version (this is certainly true of the 1714 production). The AC Productions staging of the play is described as an adaptation – so it will be interesting to see what they make of it.

The production opens at Project next week – and the Youtube video below has already been released for it (note the inclusion of an image of a newspaper from 2014, suggesting a contemporary setting and/or context).  It’s certainly a play for our times, asking difficult questions about debt and how we treat people who once had money but now have none – I’d imagine that Irish audiences might see in Timon something of Sean Quinn or Tony O’Reilly.  Should be worth catching anyway: we might have to wait another forty years before it’s done here again…

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.