On previous visits to Stratford it has been crowded with tourists and we’ve never visited Shakespeare’s birthplace. We didn’t make it this time either, but when we walked up to The Courtyard theatre in the morning before the matinee we followed the signs to Holy Trinity Church where Shakespeare was baptised in 1564, where he worshipped and where he is buried. Holy Trinity Church is a beautiful church dating back to the 13th century, set in a lovely, peaceful position by the River Avon. Perhaps next time we’ll manage to visit Shakespeare’s Birthplace and the Shakespeare Centre.
We stayed at the Alveston Manor Hotel. We’ve stayed here before, as it is just a few minutes walk from the River Avon and the RSC Theatre and also because the original timber-framed house is a beautiful Tudor building, full of atmosphere – leaded Elizabethan windows, panelled walls lined with paintings of Shakespeare and characters from the plays and photographs of old playbills. It is set in gardens with an ancient Cedar Tree under which, it is rumoured, the first performance of 'A Midsummer Night's Dream' was given.
We went to the matinee performance. The theatre was full and as we waited for the play to start we overheard from the seats behind us: “Well Mother, this is going to be different. I’m hoping a lot of this will pass you by.”
At the end of the performance we overheard a conversation from a couple following behind us as we walked away from the theatre: “I thought Feste and Malvolio were the best.” “Oh no” came the friend’s reply “I didn’t like Feste at all – far too modern and the microphone!” Her friend: “I didn’t like Sir Toby, a woman doesn’t have enough stature to play a man.” The cross-dressing was not to everyone’s liking, although I think the teenage element of the audience found it hilarious.
This was the second performance of Twelfth Night that we’ve seen by the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford. The first time was in the RSC theatre, now closed because a new auditorium is being built (due to be completed in 2010). That was a traditional performance, complete with Feste, the fool dressed in motley, playing a lute, an Elizabethan set and was very colourful and funny. This performance was different. The setting was black; nearly all the actors were dressed in black Edwardian costumes and not a box-tree in sight. Feste was a dissolute musician in evening dress, playing a grand piano, and using a microphone into which he drawled at the opening of the play “Twelfth Night … or What you Will …” and the scene was set. On came Viola, shipwrecked, barefoot and in a nightdress and shawl, and obviously a man.
The play continued – Viola, believing her twin brother, Sebastian has drowned in the wreck “disguised” as a boy, Cesario, goes to the court of the Count Orsino, who is besotted with unrequited love of the Lady Olivia, who repels his wooing as she is in mourning for her dead brother. Everything is topsy-turvy in this play and this performance certainly demonstrated that, with Sir Toby Belch (Olivia’s uncle), Sir Andrew Aguecheek (a foolish foppish knight) and Fabian (a servant) all played by women, giving a pantomime performance and reminding me somewhat of the hobbits in Lord of The Rings – small in size but yet full grown and different from adult men. I could suspend my disbelief to enjoy their performance, even though I found it a bit bizarre, but I’m sorry to say that I found the performance of Viola/Cesario (Chris New) was just not convincing – even though I know that originally women’s roles were played by boys, there was no way that I could conceive he was a woman disguised as a boy, nor that Olivia could possibly find such an effeminate young man attractive, let alone fall in love with him and this grated and irritated me throughout the play.
I did like Feste (James Clyde); his foolery, his bored condescension and his singing were superb. I also liked Olivia (Justine Mitchell) and her housekeeper Maria (Siobhan Redmond) who both gave spirited and convincing performances. Malvolio (John Lithgow) was magnificent in his portrayal of the ridiculous steward driven into seeming madness, wearing cross-gartered yellow stockings and smiling grotesquely. The grand piano had to stand in for the box-tree, so that this was where the tipsy Sir Toby (Marjorie Yates in tweeds) and the others hid to watch Malvolio find the letter written to fool him into believing Olivia loves him and it worked quite well, as the actors popped up and down commenting on and sniggering at Malvolio’s conceit and self importance.
Twelfth Night relies on the use of language and wit and is essentially a comedy about deception and disguise, about illusion and reality, about what is sane and what is rational and above all about love, the irrationality and unruliness of love.