First performed on the Feast of the Epiphany, Twelfth Night marked a day when accepted ranks and relationships could be turned upside down, with masters serving servants and the court fool playing the queen or king. Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, with its subtitle, Or, What You Will (i.e. “as you imagine you are,” or “as I want to see you”), fits perfectly with this day of “upside-down” relationships: again and again its characters emerge in a topsy-turvy way, adopting alternate roles, genders, and relationships that puzzle others (and sometimes themselves).
This is the premise for the magical musical adaptation conceived by Kwame Kwei-Armah and Shaina Taub. Shakespeare’s lines, infused by dance moves and tonal motifs, evoke the harmonies, confusions and complexities of love that are forever repeated on this earth though never in exactly the same way.
From count and countess to identical twins turfed out of the sea, to impecunious relatives, servants and ladies-in-waiting, all of the characters in Twelfth Night duck, dance and weave, wondering about who they are and who they appear to be. On this “upside-down” Twelfth Night day, they might be unexpected love objects, or inexplicably in love, or mistaken for someone else, misrepresented, misgendered, in some way misaligned. Eventually, they pair up with whoever fate (or the playwright!) has arranged for them. Taub and Kwei-Armah’s musical, with its saucy libretto and tonal variations, provides a beautiful celebration of human imperfections as well as the forgiving embrace (indeed, the miracle) of love.
Shakespeare wrote Twelfth Night side-by-side with Hamlet at the turn of the seventeenth century, and the shadow of the melancholic prince hangs over this hilarious comedy (much like Olivia’s incongruous mourning veil). The play begins with loss, mourning and unrequited love. Hardly the stuff of a ribald “upside-down celebration,” you’d think. It also has two dark notes that remain as the action closes. The first concerns Malvolio, Shakespeare’s hilarious Puritan parody. A dour model of propriety, he turns out to be as venally go-getting as anyone else. Even the most unappealingly punitive Puritan, however, has longings, dreams and feelings. With his dashed hopes, Malvolio cannot help but evoke our compassion as he ends his aspirations to greatness in a porta potty. His last scripted line, “I’ll be revenged upon you all,” is curiously proleptic. Later in the 17th century, the theatres, long the enemy of Puritan dogmatism, would be shut down altogether for eighteen years. The play’s other discordance is struck by Antonio, that good man who rescues Sebastian and asks only to follow and love him despite the peril he faces in venturing onto enemy territory. Antonio adores Sebastian and, for his loving pains, is misunderstood, rejected, and eventually left to make his way alone.
This mixture of dark and light, harmony and dissonance, provides the orchestral lushness of Twelfth Night. Single notes of misunderstanding, loss, happiness, or disappointment may ring out loudly in individual lives, yet in the great score of human dreams and desires – played out over a lifetime or reprised over the centuries – nothing lasts forever or, indeed, for very long. It’s love, nonetheless, that’s still worth the longing. Eternally new and surprising, love is truly “what makes the world go round,” or, in our case, what makes the world turn “upside down.” Welcome to Twelfth Night.
Dr. Philippa Kelly, dramaturg
Sundiata Ayinde, associate dramaturg
Felix King, associate dramaturg