A Guide to Modern Playwrights, Plays, and Productions
Twelfth Night

Director Sam Mendes marks his farewell as artistic director of London’s Donmar Warehouse with a definitive production of “Twelfth Night.” Bringing the bittersweet comedy to life is the cast Mendes uses in "Uncle Vanya,” also a sell-out at the Donmar.  In presenting the two works in repertory with the same cast, Mendes illuminates each.  Both “Uncle Vanya” and “Twelfth Night” are works about unrequited love and self-love, both use humor to lighten a prevailing melancholy, and both shine with compassion for the all-too-human characters.

Simon Russell Beale, living a life of quiet desperation as Vanya, who loves the seductive but scornful Elena, is Shakespeare’s Malvolio, tricked into revealing his passion for Olivia, both women played by Helen McCrory.  She is a languorous beauty in white lace as Elena, a seductive flirt in see-through black as Olivia.  As the pompous steward to Olivia, Beale seems to take his cue from her caution to him, “Oh you are sick of self-love, Malvolio, and taste with a distempered appetite.”  He takes things too seriously, she warns; “bird-bolts” he deems “cannon bullets.”  He disparages the fool Feste to Olivia, for Malvolio considers himself superior in the hierarchy of the household.

 Yet his insecurity is manifest not only in the way he orders the other servants around, but in his meticulous neatness, cuffs and pleated trousers exact and everything in place, even his waxed hair neatly tucked in a hairnet when he bursts into the late-night revelry of Sir Toby and his drinking companions. He constantly checks his watch (costumes are 30s) as if everyone except him is a timewaster.  Although he must defer to the titled Toby, uncle to Olivia, Malvolio takes it out on those over whom he holds sway in the household, Olivia’s “waiting gentlewoman” Maria (Selina Cadell) and  Feste.  The fool is wise enough to know that “the whirligig of time brings in his revenges,” but Maria acts immediately.

Maria takes revenge by forging a letter to Malvolio from Olivia, hinting love and advancement and encouraging him to wear yellow stockings. Beale’s reading of it (in his bedroom rather than the garden) is so emotionally revealing of this lonely man, that the device becomes much more than a humorous prank.  By the time Malvolio is treated as a madman and put in a straitjacket, we feel and the pranksters realize that the joke has gone sour.

Other victims of the self-love that Malvolio is accused of are Olivia herself, boasting of her beauty as she futilely attempts to ensnare Viola\Cesario, and also Orsino, who indulges in posing as a melancholy, unrequited lover.  Emily Watson’s shipwrecked Viola has no time for self-love; to survive, she must find employment in Orsino’s household as a servant, disguised as the boy Cesario.  That her twin Sebastian was saved from the shipwreck and arrives in Illyria will both complicate and resolve the comic mistaken-identity mixups.

  As one of Shakespeare’s most complex comedy heroines, Ms. Watson is a heart-rending, appealing Viola, as she realizes that her love for Orsino (who loves or thinks he loves Olivia), may never come to fruition – she may pine away like “Patience on a monument/ Smiling at grief” while Time, a theme throughout the play, robs her of her youth and beauty.  As Sonya in “Uncle Vanya,” Ms. Watson was equally affecting, in love with Mark Strong’s doctor, who is in love with Elena.  Mr. Strong again is the object of Ms. Watson’s affections, as an extraordinarily human Orsino, more dark and brooding than the character is generally performed.  You believe that this Orsino is truly melancholy, not just play-acting.

Anthony Ward has created a spare set, lit by candles and lanterns, and dominated upstage by a large picture frame, through which Viola first enters and in which appear from time to time characters representing the obsessions of others.  Malvolio, reading the forged letter, sees Olivia there as he fantasizes that she loves him; Orsino sees her there in black, unattainable as she grieves for her dead brother.  When Antonio mistakes Viola for Sebastian, her twin brother, we see him in the frame, depicting her hope that he lives.

The trio of Sir Toby, Sir Andrew and Feste not only contribute comedy, but also offer insight into Puritan-minded Malvolio.  Disapproving of drink, dance, and song, he cannot abide anyone else enjoying these pastimes.  When Sir Toby asks him, “Dost thou think because thou art virtuous, there shall be no more cakes and ale?”  Malvolio, who cannot respond as he wishes to his employer’s uncle, turns around and threatens Maria.  Fat Toby (Paul Jesson) and his sidekick, skinny Andrew  (David Bradley), are surely the first Laurel and Hardy-like comic twosome, while Anthony O’Connell makes of Feste a deeper character than usual. He is the first to feel, while clowning with the imprisoned Malvolio, that their practical joke is going wrong, and he sings beautifully the melancholy lyrics “Come away, come away death” and  “The rain it raineth every day” that concludes the play.