Twelfth Night, or What You Will

In the Royal Shakespeare Company’s current production of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, or What you Will the words are annunciated with perfect RSC clarity and Richard Wilson does a fair replication of a Shakespearean Victor Meldrew.

However, stylistically the production is fragmented and desperately unclear. Is the play supposed to be set in a part of the Ottoman Empire, Illyria itself or an Imperial colony? The wobbly column, the somewhat clumsy scattering of Persian rugs and a park bench did nothing to clear this up. Elusive of all was Gregory Doran’s casting choices: had actors simply been cast for their abilities on stage regardless of shape or race? Or was this exactly why specific casting choices had been made?

The obvious imperialist undertones were inescapable but why this stylistic choice had been made remains inexplicable. Is racial identity a theme that really needs to be addressed within this play? Certainly the play asks that marginal identity be unmasked and accepted, female identity especially. However, does this reach as far as racial identity?

Shakespeare survives because it is reread and reinterpreted over and over; the text itself seems to ask this, yet it was this space for interpretation that ultimately ruined the RSC’s production.

To cast a white Caucasian in the role of Sir Andrew Auguecheeck and then to choose to cast an Asian actor in the role of Fabian is to inscribe meaning where it seems irrelevant to do so: the audience had to just accept that, of course, high status characters, Olivia and Orsino, would obviously be played by white actors whereas characters such as Maria and Olivia’s attendants, characters of low status, were to be played by actors who could fulfil certain racial stereotypes.

Why did the RSC choose to make race such an issue? It seems wholly improbable that these casting choices were acts of chance, racial identity was clumsily addressed, if at all, and certainly left audience members bewildered.

Of course, to sit silent and unresponsive through a performance of Twelfth Night would be somewhat impossible and there were flashes of very insightful acting, but is this enough? This production seemed too confused and too eager to please a whole plethora of unhelpful interpretations that only served to clog the performance and confuse the audience.


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