Technicolour Twelfth Night

I’ve seen Twelfth Night more times than is quite healthy and, to be frank, I am bored of angsty, lugubrious, Shakespeare-as-Chekhov productions, where Malvolio needs to get in touch with Amnesty International as soon as possible.  So I was delighted to find that the Company Theatre’s all singing, all dancing production of the play in Hindi turned Shakespeare’s so called ‘silver’ comedy into a technicolour romp.

This Twelfth Night was a cheekily filleted version of the play and perhaps the most significant cut was the ditching of the dark house (4.2.);  Saurabh Nayyar’s Malvolio was simply thrown out of Olivia’s house after he appeared before her indecorously sporting sheer yellow tights over his dark underpants.  And when Malvolio turned up at the end of the play to complain about his treatment, it seemed he was still sick of self love.  For, after the three married couples had exchanged wedding garlands, Malvolio offered a garland to a woman in the audience.  But the moment it looked as if the woman might accept the garland, Malvolio changed his mind and put the garland around his own neck.

The production’s Sebastian, Amitosh Nagpal, was responsible for translating Twelfth Night into Hindi and he decided, as he frankly informed the audience, to change a few things.  In particular, as Shakespeare gave Sebastian so few lines, Nagpal expanded Sebastian’s role and made him into the narrator. Nagpal’s Sebastian explained he had persuaded his friend Antonio not to accompany him because it was too dangerous -  a deft move that excised one entire plot line.  However, this Sebastian also took part in an astonishing rendition of the duel with Andrew Aguecheek.  Sebastian took over in the duelling department from Geetanjali Kulkami’s street kid Cesario, who when faced with a fight just ducked and ran.  The ‘duel’ then took place with Andrew and Sebastian lining up, each with a crowd of enthusiastic supporters behind them, and taking it in turn to sing jeering songs at each other.   It wasn’t what Shakespeare wrote, but it was engaging, exuberant, energised and presentational;  for me, that’s a recipe for good theatre.

Amidst the bustle of the clowning and musical routines, one piece of  beautifully enigmatic physical theatre stood out.  The production took the interval after 2.4., once Cesario had agreed to take Orsino’s jewel to Olivia.  Left on her own onstage Cesario unwound her turban and let her hair down;  she paused sadly and then lay down to sleep at the front of the stage as Sebastian – or was it the narrator? – hovered over her protectively.

This was not a production for the Malvolios of the world – it was festive, colourful, and full of theatrical cakes and ale.  But any Twelfth Night that can generate a sense of fun on a night when the freezing, drenched groundlings were being pummelled by the wind and the rain deserves a lot of respect.

Professor Elizabeth Schafer
Professor of Drama and Theatre Studies, Department of Drama and Theatre 
Royal Holloway, University of London