May 5, 2010, by Peter Kirwan

Twelfth Night (National Theatre Primary Classics) @ Warwick Arts Centre

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The Primary Classics series is an important part of the National Theatre’s youth work. You can argue till you’re blue in the face about the politics of canon, the centrality of Shakespeare as a "necessary" component of primary education, and whether there aren’t a great many more worthwhile theatrical projects that kids should be taken to, but those are bigger questions. Shakespeare’s undoubtedly going to stay central to the curriculum under the next government, and the National are selling in line with current priorities.

And yet, I can’t ignore the question of what a Shakespeare production educates children in. Two things in Carl Heap’s abridged version jumped out at me, things which I was disappointed and saddened to see so prominently in a production for schoolchildren.

* Nicholas Clayton’s Sir Toby – the funniest and therefore the most influential character in the production – indulging in casual sexual harrassment of Niamh McCann’s Maria (slapping her backside, forcibly kissing her), and her giggling in delight at this. The best adult productions I’ve seen of Twelfth Night have thrown up serious questions about this relationship; to condone it as funny and acceptable before kids, I found abhorrent.

* A studious avoidance of sexual ambiguity, which is far more understandable but begs the question of why one would put on a Twelfth Night for kids? This was rendered particularly conservative in the minor editing of Samantha Pearl’s Viola’s line "A little thing would make me tell them how much I lack of a man" to "A little thing would make me tell them how much I lack a man." With the omission of a single word, we moved from the complex, gender-fluid humour of a boy/girl shying away from manhood, to the plaint of a helpless girl needing a big strong man to come and rescue her (as, of course, Ross Devlin’s Antonio subsequently did). It was no longer her identity at stake, but her conventional social position.

These may seem ungenerous complaints, but they’re key to my questioning of what "value" subsists in Shakespeare done in this way? Heap’s editing boiled the production down to a breakneck seventy minutes, rattling through scenes at a pace which I could follow, knowing the play inside out, but to my mind seemed to rather obscure the action. This wasn’t helped by the fact that a seven-strong cast performed practically every role from the play, including such eminently cuttable characters as Fabian, Valentine and the Priest: meaning that actors often had to disappear offstage midscene to change (example: Asif Khan’s Sebastian unlinked arms with Olivia during the final scene to reappear moments later as Malvolio, then sneaked back on after yelling Malvolio’s closing line from offstage).

The insistence on keeping all the characters and at least a sketch of every scene extended into the attempt to retain as much Shakespearean dialogue as possible. Excellent jokes ("If this were played now upon a stage") fell flat on an audience of schoolchildren who weren’t given the tools or articulation in order to understand and appreciate that jokes were being told. However, the kids went wild for the copious physical comedy: Edward Evans’s Sir Andrew, in particular, had the audience screaming with laughter as he mugged and posed in a variety of ridiculous positions.

Why incorporate so much of the Shakespearean text if it’s the physical comedy that’s needed to occasion a response? Why can an adaptation for children compromise on everything except the words? Is the best response really to put on a funny show for the kids and hope that some of the Shakespearean text seeps through; or, might it not be better to create a new text that allows children to engage with ears as well as eyes?

These reservations aside, this was a well-performed and often very funny romp through Twelfth Night. Set on a small raised platform with a curtain hanging behind, and locations posts at either side of the stage for Orsino’s and Olivia’s households, the production prioritised speed and accessibility. As already mentioned, Sir Toby and Sir Andrew were dominant, with their knockabout comedy (particularly in the drinking and duel scenes) consistently amusing. Clayton’s Toby had something of the retired colonel about him: roaring from behind his whiskered mask and towering over the rest of the cast, he was a formidable presence, presenting a surprising amount of genuine danger to both Malvolio, leering down on him from a chair as he snarled "Art any more than a steward?", and to Sebastian, their duel continuing on even terms until broken up by Olivia. Evans, meanwhile, concentrated on Andrew’s cowardice: in the final scene, a long Scooby-Doo-esque double-take sequence saw him stopping his limbs from shaking at the sight of Sebastian one by one, before finally screaming and running offstage.

McCann gave a performance full of gusto as Maria, with knowing winks and sighs to the audience and a willingness to get stuck in with the physical humour. The only member of Olivia’s household who didn’t wear a commedia dell’arte mask, she thus became something of an audience surrogate, providing the clearest transitions between the main plot and the comedic chaos of Toby and Andrew. Devlin’s Feste, by contrast, was subordinated to near-pointlessness; while his songs were enjoyable, the character was reduced to little more than a strolling musician, with his playing for Orsino and his consolation of Malvolio in prison played sincerely. Feste did, however, take Fabian’s place during the garden scene, which made Fabian’s appearance in time for Andrew and Viola’s duel even more confusing.

Clayton doubled as Orsino in a performance inspired by Blackadder’s Prince Regent. In fits of Byronic excess, he laid back with head on hand in Cesario’s lap, in paroxysms of emotional despair. In moments such as this, the production achieved its best marriages of interpretation with accessibility, positioning Orsino as a clearly self-indulgent and foolish lord, while also establishing his power. Pearl’s Viola worked well in tandem with him, dressed in breeches and cap and forever uncomfortable at the male-bonding advances made by him, as well as the more sexual ones of Olivia. Olivia herself was similarly effective, playing up the petulant aspects of the character and often having her run offstage in fits of sobs as she failed to get from Cesario (here pronounced interestingly as Chezario) the promises she desired. Her happiness with Sebastian was, understandably, rendered suitably platonic as the two skipped offstage together holding hands.

Asif Khan did a strong job with Malvolio, clothed in black robes and severe mask. This steward was a priggish bore, and a coward to boot – withdrawing before Toby’s threats, he instead slammed his cane into Feste’s feet and left the poor clown hobbling. Skipping and dancing in the garden after reading "Olivia’s" letter, he demonstrated an amusing confidence in his own attractiveness that kept the humour on the child-friendly side of sexual implication. The severe abbreviation of the prison scene, however (limited to just Malvolio’s request for pen and paper from Feste) left this subplot rather cut short, however. More disturbing was the climax. Jessie Burton’s Olivia found the trick played on Malvolio hysterically funny, and the entire cast laughed long and cruelly at his misfortune. There was no interrogation of the rights or wrongs of the actions; no set up of Malvolio’s "crimes" substantial enough to justify his punishment, and no attempt at redemption for any of the characters. Instead, Malvolio’s offstage shout of "I’ll be revenged…" cut across the echo of bullying laughter, a rather hollow note for any production to close on, but surely an inappropriate one for a children’s production. I agree that one can’t expect a full level of emotional and psychological deconstruction in a school production; but surely issues such as bullying, hitting back and pleasure in others’ misfortunes are ones that can – and should – be challenged with children, not held up for enjoyment?

While, of course, I won’t be privy to any post-show classroom discussions, my impression of the audience’s response was that the children enjoyed the obviously funny moments, but their lack of response during the verbal joking or the exposition suggested strongly to me that they didn’t follow what was going on. For my part, my reservations about the kinds of value exposed but not challenged by the production left me wondering what the purpose of this production was. If it was to make its audience laugh, through innocent or cruel means, then I’d argue it worked; but I’m not sure how much of a success that makes it. If Shakespeare for children is going to continue to mean something, other than the assumed timeless value of being exposed to Shakespeare’s words, then I think productions need to do a lot more. The kids can handle it.

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