“Twelfth Night” (or why I hate Original Practices) by William Shakespeare

at Shakespeare’s Globe, Thursday 27th September 2012

Looking at the cast and creative team behind Tim Carroll’s production of Twelfth Night, it’s not hard to predict how the production is going to be played (that is, of course, if you didn’t see the original in 2002). Now, this isn’t in itself a Bad Thing. The production is very strong, pretty funny, has the audience enraptured and features some glorious performances.

But then I go to the theatre to be surprised. I want to experience something unexpected. True, not everyone does, but if I book a ticket I expect not to be able to work out exactly how it’s going to be performed.

I’m not saying that I was able to sit on the train on the way to London and picture, moment for moment, the play as it happened; that I would have enjoyed myself more sat at home reading the play with voices in my head. No, I’m not a seer and I did very much enjoy the piece. All I’m saying is that, knowing the work of these creatives and actors, and having experienced Globe productions before, it was easy to work out the features and general style of the thing.

Rylance’s Olivia was always going to be gentle on the whole with sudden outbursts and feature a certain peculiarity (here it’s a spirit-like glide), maintaining femininity without ever trying too hard. Stephen Fry’s Malvolio could be heard clearly in the mind’s ear before stepping foot in the theatre; a bumbling, sympathetic misanthrope who is unable to connect with his peers and thus has to suffer humiliation. Johnny Flynn and Samuel Barnett as Viola and Sebastian was perhaps a turn from the more obvious choice of putting them the other way round, but still show two sides of the same coin and provide a lot of heart. Granted, Paul Chahidi gives a surprising turn as Maria, and in many moments steals the scene, but on the whole the rest of the cast is fairly standard (though a little stronger than usual Globe fare).

Jenni Tiramani’s aesthetic of doublet and hose is also of little interest and, though the jokes are strong and frequent (thank God someone remembered it’s a comedy), they aren’t exactly original.

I guess what I’m saying here is that I’m tired of so-called “original practices” (I liked John Donnelly recent tweet: “I’m setting up a theatre company called Original Practices… Tagline: ‘Quality is not an option’.”). I find their use dull, unnecessary (in that it doesn’t add anything that non-original-practice couldn’t do) and regressive. I’m therefore going to use the rest of this post to try to justify those statements, with passing reference to Twelfth Night. Okay? Grand.

The most obvious thing about original practices performances is that they feature all-male casts. The argument that this doesn’t offer opportunities for women in an industry saturated in male parts is perhaps a little redundant since all-female productions have started to become a regular occurrence, but it’s certainly something worth considering. I don’t have an issue with the notion of an all-male cast in itself (I adore the work of Propellor), but with the way it is used. For where Edward Hall’s company takes that old Shakespearean feature and subverts it in order to draw things out in the play which weren’t apparent before, the Globe generally fails to discover anything new about these characters. Of course, the whole notion of acting is based on the idea of pretending to be someone else, but when there are scores of women who could play these parts better than men, why are they denied access?

Using men to play women also, slightly out of necessity, relies on stereotypes. True, those stereotypes (women are “fragile” or “strong” etc.) may be rejected just as much as they are obeyed, but they still collect an audience’s subconscious prejudices and play on that. At one point, for example, Johnny Flynn’s Viola screams when confronted with Andrew Aguecheek’s sword. Why is this funny? Not because of the situation, but because we accept the stereotype that women are afraid little creatures who can’t fend for themselves, and then remember that this isn’t a woman after all. Hilarious.

I also wonder about the ability to repeat of OP productions (and here I become a bit shaky, as I’ve not seen a play done more than once following OP). For, while there is a different production for every director and each will bring out different things in a rehearsal room, if the same design and approach is used each time then there isn’t going to be a huge amount of difference between what the plays say. I know this Twelfth Night is essentially a revival of the 2002 production, but then how different would an original practices production overseen by a different director really be? Sure, the use of the space would differ and things like new intonation and characterisation would be apparent, but would it leave us feeling any differently?

Original practices clearly has/had its place. When the New Globe first opened, it was a way of exploring Shakespeare in his own space and on his own terms, and was actually truly experimental. But I wonder how much the learning curve has plateaued. It doesn’t teach us as much now as it did fourteen years ago, and I think the original reservations about it making the space feel like a “museum” are becoming true again. What do we get from original practices which we wouldn’t get from, say, a black box production, and is that worth the loss of truthful female characters and social comment? This type of theatre was made four-hundred years ago. Have we really become so disillusioned with everything we’ve learnt since then that we have to regress to an outdated form?

I know I’m in the minority here. Audiences love the style and productions play to packed houses. Twelfth Night is a tight, funny, touching production, but to me that seems to be an exception to the rule. I know the Globe is built for presenting Shakespeare in his original context and I know that’s how it’s supposed to work (and, actually, that most productions don’t have all-male casts). Nonetheless, the theatre does have potential to do things differently, and I can’t help thinking that by trying out new styles, Dromgoole and his company could end up moving forward, not back.

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