Theatre from the cracks in the psyche of culture











    September 2008

Shakespeare's Masquerade 
of Love & Desire


behind the masquerade, 
the laughter and the music, 
many of us are bleeding

Faces blank and impartial.
The beating heart bass of
incessant rhythm drawing 
forward and into the dark
shadow life of Club Illyria ...

"If music be the food of love, play on;
Give me excess of it, that, surfeiting,
The appetite may sicken, and so die."

                                          Duke Orsino

The central characters in Shakespeare's Twelfth Night are masking some aspect of themselves. Some are hiding what they don't wish to reveal. Others use the mask to project a front for various purposes. Set in Club Illyria, the occupants and guests seek fulfillment of their dreams and aspirations. Club Illyria is one big Masquerade allowing for an escape from all sorrows and personal pain. Yet through the escape some find a kind of fleeting fulfillment while others are discarded and even cruelly destroyed.

One is reminded of the film Saturday Night Fever. The magnetic pull of the club has its own fascination and drama built into it. Through the beat and club rituals, some people find a kind of meaning to existence. Boys strut their stuff. They walk the walk. And each tries to out talk and out smart each other. The girls try to out pose each other; while hiding their secret wants and fears. Some use the tragic mask to claim their space and their function. Others, with more sinister intent, use it for their own alienated sense of purpose.

In Twelfth Night, the character of Sir Toby Belch thrives on the "scene" which he also derides. He is the archetypical "cool" post modern cynic. All is game. Nothing is real. The more successful he becomes in his game playing; the more abstracted and retiring into the universe of wit and substance abuse. While traditional productions of Twelfth Night have tended to make Belch into a fat drunken slob, they miss the opportunity to identify his aristocratic background; his idleness drawn from a deep cynicism regarding his very existence and the homeless mind he encases with his body. One doesn't have to look far for intellectual snobs who substance abuse and define their worth through the savagery and wit of their own tongue.

For those who wish to describe Twelfth Night as the "romantic" work of Shakespeare, I ask: "How does Malvolio fit into this?"

I believe Malvolio is the counter point to the superficial nature of love craved by most of the other characters. Malvolio is unlikable and very anal retentive. Nothing is endearing in the personality offered by Shakespeare's character. Yet there are plenty of Malvolio's around. Look at our current Prime Minister for example! The prissy and sanctimonious aspects of Malvolio make for fun and offer up an easy target for Mr. Cynical Cool in the form of Belch and, for that matter, the daringly provocative and intellectually understated, Maria.

In this production, Malvolio is a woman. She is a woman who has felt secret desires that could not be revealed for fear of being outcast and ostracized. The importance of Malvolio's role in the play cannot be over-looked. Malvolio exposes frailty and weakness. She exposes her real desires and is made to appear very foolish; even insane for doing so. Her mask of officialdom and officiousness in nature is come undone and even draws on the secret fears of the multitudes. What makes Olivia believe the lie of Malvolio's fault is the hysteria generated by the whispering half truths and exaggerations caused by the deceptive machinations of Belch and Maria.

We cannot understand Twelfth Night without understanding what happens to Malvolio. In a cool world, she is an easy target for our vengeance and hatred. It is easy to pour scorn on her and feel somehow justified.

The scene with Feste disguised as Sir Topas, a clergy member, is placed at the natural high point of the play. It becomes the climax. The love affairs do not occupy such a position in the text. Feste seems to be supporting the aims of Belch in his torment of Malvolio. However, some examination of what he is doing here reveals that he is simply using the moment to open up Malvolio to a greater sense of truth and to move her away from her fanciful and illusiary view of the world.

If we work backwards from here, we see Feste doing precisely this with each character. He points to Olivia as the "fool" and says "take her away". He empowers Violia with a new strength to challenge Olivia's nonsensical fancy. He challenges and empowers Sebastian. He chalenges Orsino to look more closely at himself. So at the highpoint, the climactic point of the play, it is Feste and Malvolio who take centre stage. This suggests that Malvolio is not simply a sub-plot but is the central counterpoint to the illusiary sentiments of most of the other characters. She has something in common with Antonio (Antonia in this production) in that she never receives any fulfillment at the end of the play.

All this is not standard fare. The character of Malvolio is problematic in any viewing. It should be enough to provoke re-examination of the work in creating a production. What if Malvolio was a male approaching sixty years of age? What would that say of his desire for Olivia whom he knew since she was a child?

However you play it, Malvolio provokes discussion as to what the production is really about.

In the Daramalan Theatre Company production, our concern has primarily been with the notion of identity and illusion. This led to the masquerade motiff. Having seen woeful productions that offerend no explanation for the confusion of Sebastian with Viola, we had to find a reason why confusion existed. Do directors who haven't tried to grapple with this point imagine that Shakespeare had no explanation or reason other than the twins looking similar?

Surely at a deeper level there is something to do with what makes genders express in the ways they do. What makes male and female attractive to each other! Where are the demarcations ambiguous? And what sparks fear of same sex attraction? Fear that finds expression in cultural codes of behaviour and laws? Fear that finds its way in the human creation and expression of god's will? Do we imagine Shakespeare wasn't concerned with issues of this nature?

And isn't there something in the narcissus myth of males and females seeking their own reflections in the image of the other? These questions rose up when we approached Twelfth Night for a primarily young audience in 2008. Nothing is definitive. Yet all is part of a continuum. Shakespeare didn't write science text books. We as a theatre company are not scientists. Yet we deal with a human laboritory of what makes us tick and how we relate to the universe. We try to draw on what we observe. We conceptualize. We explore through a form. We express. Nothing is taken for granted. Nothing is sacred. Everything is open for examination.

The following text from a play by Giordano Bruno is instructive for our work:

"Behold in the candle borne by this Chandler, to whom I give birth, that which shall clarify certain shadows of ideas ... I need not instruct you of my belief. Time gives all and takes all away; everything changes but nothing perishes. One only is immutable, eternal and ever endures, one and the same with itself. With this philosophy my spirit grows, my mind expands. Whereof, however obscure the night may be, I await the daybreak, and they who dwell in day look for night ... Rejoice therefore, and keep whole, if you can, and return love for love."

Twelfth Night
by William Shakespeare

Sept 24 - 27 2008 at 8.00pm
McCowage Hall
Daramalan College
Bookings and Enquiries:  02 6245 6300

Special Schools' matinee at 1.00pm. on Wed. 24th.

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