In the year of the London 2012 Olympics, much stress is being placed on Britain’s multicultural heritage and international standing, and the Royal Shakespeare Company’s (RSC) World Shakespeare Festival is in accordance with this trend. Throughout 2012 many international productions will be made in celebration of the world-renowned playwright, with the RSC contributing twelve new productions of their own. The first of this exploration of internationalism was What Country, Friends, Is This?, a trilogy of Shakespeare’s ‘Shipwrecked’ plays: A Comedy of Errors, The Tempest, and Twelfth Night – all performed by the same company, rehearsed simultaneously, and all using the same stage.
As the season’s title is Viola’s first words of the play in which she is protagonist, it seemed that the company placed emphasis on Twelfth Night within the trilogy, and the performance lived up to such expectations. The comedy traces the story of Viola, one of two twins shipwrecked on opposite coasts of Illyria, a country ruled by the Duke Orsino, who is suffering an unrequited love for the mourning Countess Olivia. Believing her brother to have drowned, and now alone in the world, Viola disguises herself as a boy, changing her name to Cesario, and becomes Orsino’s servant in order to survive. However, she soon falls in love with her master and finds herself caught between him and Olivia, sent to woo her on his behalf. Things are further complicated when Olivia falls in love with the ‘boy’, leading to a love triangle that only the arrival of Viola’s brother, Sebastian, can untangle.
Viola’s entrance at the beginning of the play held incredible impact, clearly stressing the ‘shipwrecked’ theme within the play. Breaking through the water of a large tank that occupied the front-hand-side of the stage, the way she pulled herself panting and dripping to shore showed her to be resilient and resourceful. Played by Emily Taaffe, who also holds major roles in the other two parts of the Company’s trilogy, her short hair and well-learned mannerisms meant she slipped easily into the masculine role of Cesario, making her disguise believable to the audience as well as Orsino’s court. Small and excitable, she not only became a credible youth but also an interesting contrast and balance to the lovelorn Orsino, played by Jonathan McGuinness, whose fiefdom within this play was in fact the police force, rather than an entire country. His slightly cynical and mature demeanour, somewhat jaded and made melancholy by rejection, was lightened and freshened by Cesario’s presence, making his and Viola’s union at the end of the play seem as if it were built on genuine like, despite its fast-paced development.
The age difference between McGuinness and Taaffe did not particularly hinder their characters’ dynamic, but it did seemingly have an impact on the relationship between Taaffe and Kirsty Bushell, who played Olivia. Bushell portrayed Olivia as a mature older woman: headstrong, experienced, and of a similar disposition to the Duke, making her rejection of him slightly less viable and her sudden attraction to Cesario even more so. Though she played the role well, managing her household – in this case a hotel – with the regal nature of a modern-day countess and showing realistic embarrassment at both Viola’s polite rejections and her unveiling at the end of the play, her strong character altered the dynamic between her and Cesario to the point where it was, to a small extent, damaged. It was simply unbelievable that such an experienced and stately woman would pine so senselessly after the young, roguish Cesario; the sense of desperation this unrequited infatuation required did not appear to sit well with her character, and made their relationship on stage awkward. This was particularly shown when compared with her interactions with Sebastian when she mistakes him for Cesario – with her true love she acts much more forthright and coquettishly, her claims of love becoming believable, playful and as confident as she acts with him. With Sebastian (Stephen Hagan, who, apart from attire and voice, was in no way identical to Taaffe and yet somehow undeniably became her brother) Olivia became an experienced woman who could take the lead in courtship, rather than the plaintive, weak and clingy lovesick girl she tried unsuccessfully to imitate with the disguised Viola.
Though the two entangled couples held the audience’s attention with great skill, they were to some extent upstaged by the capers of the subplot, of which Malvolio (Jonathan Slinger, appearing as Prospero in The Tempest) stole the show. The finicky butler of Olivia’s household, whom many dislike and hold in contempt, Malvolio becomes the victim of the trickery of Olivia’s maid Maria after putting an end to the revels of foolish knight Sir Andrew Aguecheek and Olivia’s delightfully and brazenly drunk cousin Sir Toby Belch, played by Nicholas Day, whose drunken behaviour, complete with slurring and a number of belches that lived up to his name, was somewhat convincing. Maria convinces Malvolio through a letter, supposedly written by the Countess, that Olivia is in love with him, and wishes for him to show his love by appearing in “yellow stockings,” “cross gartered,” and “smiling.”
These seemingly harmless statements were realised in cringe-worthy hilarity by an incredibly confident Slinger in the second half, appearing “cross gartered” in a black leather thong, yellow thigh-high stockings, and nothing else apart from his suit coat. Slinger’s Malvolio was brilliantly portrayed, his smile verging on the border between derangement, stupidity, and stalker. His humiliation – complete when those unfortunate enough to be sat in the right of the stalls had to witness him ascend some stairs – was by far the funniest and most lasting image of the play, and left him completely at Maria’s and her gang’s mercy, as he was declared, quite understandably given his performance, a madman. The company also chose to make this revenge easier for the audience to swallow by having him threaten Maria with violence in the first half – making this cruel punishment seem far more in proportion to his crime, and therefore seem less cruel and more hilarious.
Overall, the play was a complete success, making good use of innovative scenery and a modern-day setting (for instance, the cowardly Aguecheek whimpering “I’ll hold” into his mobile when trying to leave in disgrace). Leaving the audience in tears of laughter at times and earning huge applause, the play certainly stressed not only international themes but the international endurance of Shakespeare – and the strength and skill his lasting presence lends to British theatre.