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Playreading Report: Toronto Shakespeare Workshop: Twelfth Night – Act I, 25th April

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After five tragedies, it’s a pleasant change of pace to be looking at some lighter fare. It’s safe to say that the main theme of the play is Love – and this came across strongly throughout the first act. Much of the play is a series of two-handers, frequently with one character in love with, or at least drawn to, the other character on stage, with the second character’s affections or interest lying elsewhere. We tackled five scenes this week, each with this dynamic in mind.

The first scene we looked at, between Viola and the Captain, is frequently performed as the opening scene of the play, as it sets up the play nicely, introducing Viola in person, and by reference, both Orsino and Olivia. It’s full of exposition, but our interest was in playing the Captain’s love for Viola, as Viola herself prepares to face the world without the protection of her father and brother. The Captain’s interest in Viola may be romantic, but we thought of it as more protective and fatherly. This informs the way he addresses her from the start of the scene, soothes her fears about her brother, and reassures her that he knows Illyria well. We thought of his overarching objective in the scene being to keep Olivia safe with him; and so when Orsino’s name comes up, and Viola reacts to the idea of him being an eligible bachelor, the Captain is quick to note that the Count is already spoken for, and goes on to sing Olivia’s praises.

For Viola’s part, we played up her vulnerability at the beginning of the scene. With the Captain’s reassurances, she takes in her surroundings, and by the end is turning to the Captain for support. She understands that the Captain is steering her clear of a romantic dalliance with Orsino, and her reference to introducing herself as an eunuch is as much to mollify the Captain as it is to account for her disguise as a man.

So apart from the exposition, both characters achieve their objectives: the Captain is able to take Viola under his protection, and Viola is rescued from her vulnerable state.

The second scene was between Maria and Sir Toby; with Maria quietly and reprovingly in love with the drunken rogue, but Sir Toby’s mind elsewhere, on Sir Andrew and his dwindling fortune. The scene neatly sets up the relationships between Olivia, Sir Toby, Sir Andrew and Maria, and demonstrates Sir Toby’s sponging ways, both in terms of consumption of alcohol and financial dependence on others. We spent most of our energies on comic delivery and business for Sir Toby – with an ultimate goal of reflecting Maria’s enjoyment of him, even while telling him off. We found a nice moment where they could almost kiss, before being interrupted by the arrival of Sir Andrew.

The third scene is something of an extension of the second, with Sir Toby and Sir Andrew. Here, it is Sir Toby’s love of Sir Andrew that we played with – in the sense that Sir Toby both uses Sir Andrew for his money, but also genuinely enjoys the entertainment his company provides. Sir Andrew is distracted, by his pursuit of Olivia and his own general lack of wit. Sir Toby is focussed on Sir Andrew throughout the scene, working him, teasing, flattering and manipulating him. We had Sir Andrew looking lost and aimless, pacing the room, with Sir Toby ensconced at the kitchen table, giving support – until Sir Andrew decides to leave, which brings Sir Toby to his feet and escorting Sir Andrew back in. Again, both characters achieve their objectives: Sir Toby persuades his friend to stay, while Sir Andrew recovers from being “put down”, to renew his purpose in staying.

The fourth scene was between Maria and Feste. Continuing our theme, it is Feste who loves Maria here. He’s like a puppy-dog looking for scraps of affection from Maria – joking with her in an effort to make her smile, and getting as good as he gives. Unlike Maria’s relationship with Sir Toby, Feste and Maria have an easy rapport – but Feste’s love is unrequited. We had Feste seated in the kitchen, gazing up at Maria as she works. Feste’s concentration is on her, while Maria’s is on her work, with the occasional aside to him. In this way, their relationship is represented physically in the staging. Feste perhaps comes closer to an honest declaration of love than anyone in Act I with the line “thou wert as witty a piece of Eve’s flesh as any in Illyria”.

Finally, we looked at the scene between Viola and Olivia, where it is Olivia who ultimately loves Viola (as Caesario), although it is Viola making the declarations of love on behalf of Orsino. it seems clear that the “make me a willow cabin at your gate” speech is a transitional moment for Olivia, moving her to fall in love with Viola. What is less clear is Viola’s motivation. I think there are two things at work in Viola here: her genuine appreciation of Olivia’s beauty, as a rival to Orsino’s affections, and her love of Orsino, with a desire for his happiness, even if it means he ends up with Olivia. I liked a quiet, intense intimacy as Viola says “And make the gossip of the air cry out ‘Olivia’!” – playing against the line’s notion of a shouted “halloo”. I also liked that our Viola returned to a natural brusqueness in indignantly refusing payment and decrying Olivia’s “cruelty”. Viola was never emotionally invested in her “willow cabin” speech – while Olivia remains entranced by it. (And so do I.)

This blog covers the Meetup.com workshop session conducted on April 25, 2015.

Re-published with permission from the Toronto Shakespeare Workshop (https://www.meetup.com/Toronto-Shakespeare-in-Performance-Workshop/)

Organiser: Justin Hay

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