Great plays do more than tell a great story – they illuminate something about human nature. In the midst of entertaining and surprising us, they give us the chance to reflect on what it is to be human. What we are made of, what we are capable of…
In Twelfth Night, people do surprising things… make surprising choices. Why does Orsino, powerful and in his prime, not woo Olivia himself.. but send messenger after messenger instead? Why does Viola, after surviving a devastating shipwreck, not seek help to get back to home and safety.. but rather stay in a strange country and disguise herself as her lost brother? Why does Olivia turn instantaneously from an extreme form of mourning for her brother to almost giddy infatuation? And what prompts Malvolio, whose dignity is everything to him, to willingly put on those awful yellow stockings?
You can decide that .. well, that’s just the way the playwright is trying to be funny, to tell a story. It’s not real. In other words, you can dismiss the entire play as improbable fiction. But, if instead, you are convinced that Shakespeare had more to him and that it’s worth digging deeper in hopes of understanding something that he seemed to understand about the human heart .. then you have to keep looking for the answers to these questions.
This is the joy of directing, of course. Digging into these questions and many, many more besides and attempting to answer them through how you work with the actors to shape the play.
There is a longing that pervades Twelfth Night. Its people long for transformation – they don’t want to stay in their grief if new love can deliver them from it, they have powerful desires for their lives to be changed entirely. Ruling Illyria is suddenly no longer enough for Orsino – he wants to know love and the powerlessness of love, being alive is not enough for Viola – she wants to keep her brother alive, too, and she wants a new love to give a reason for life, a noble grief turns out to not near enough for Olivia who reveals that we might be most susceptible to infatuation during the darkest moments of our lives, and Malvolio’s ambition, which he has nurtured with constant fantasy, conquers every other bit of good sense in him. They have unquenchable longings which they insist upon pursuing against all good judgment and prudence.
And this is a truth of the human heart. Shakespeare while letting us laugh and shake our heads at his story, still has it right. Our longings take hold of us and some go so deep that we cannot shake them off, they grip us and bother us until in a desperate desire to be free of them, we finally ignore all the voices of caution and do surprising things. Very surprising things. Come what may.