Shakespeare's scintillating comedy "Twelfth Night" light sup the television screen like a Roman candle and heralds the beginning of the second season of the six-year series, "The Shakespeare Plays," a joint BBC-TV and Time-Life television production. The play will air Wednesday (PBS Feb. 27 8-10 p.m. Check local listings for time, date, and repeats).
"Twelfth Night" (or "What You Will") is one of the most farcical and madcap Shakespeare comedies, which under the lively direction of John Gorrie spins from scene to scene like the "whirligig of time" the not-so-foolish fool invokes.
The setting is the mythical country of Illyria, ruled by Duke Orsino, who pines for the love of the indifferent Olivia. Onto the shores of Illyria stumbles Viola, fresh from a shipwreck. Twin sister of Sebastian, whom she presumes drowned, Viola disguises herself as a eunuch called Cesario to protect her maidenhood and becomes a servant to Orsino.
Viola falls in love with Orsino and Olivia with "Cesario." Sebastian returns to compound the confusion, and miraculously all the major characters end up married except for Malvolio, who persists in loving himself best of all.
Rarely has a play been more full of play than this one. Disguise, mistaken identity, and sheer trickery form the audacious underpinning of a plot so zany that it must have astonished even Shakespeare, who quips through one of his characters, "If this were played upon a stage now, I could condemn it as an improbable fiction."
As if to echo the discrepancy between appearance and reality, Shakespeare has outdone himself with plays on words. The play reverberates with puns and double-entendres, and the rapid exchanges, particularly among the lesser characters, may leave the audience gasping for breath and groping for sense among the archaisms. Unfortunately, the time seems not too far off when Shakespeare will become another Chaucer and one will have to learn a whole language to understand him.
Finally there is the play of music, the songs woven into the text in the manner of a musical, which underscore the play's mercurial moods and echo its celebrated first line, "If music be the food of love, play on'"
(A short concert from a new series called "Music in the Age of Shakespeare" will follow this performance and subsequent new productions).
Yet the play's playful spirit is itself something of an illusion, and the viewer has the option of interpreting it on a different level of meaning. On the surface it is a giddy, witty farce and can be enjoyed as such. But any student of Shakespeare will recognize that at its core this comedy is mroe heavy-hearted than light. Some of the same themes are present here that inform the poet's tragedies and the melancholy content of his sonnets -- the ephemerality of beauty, the fickleness of love, the deceptiveness of appearances , the wavering line between madness and sanity, the undercurrent of homosexuality.
Love itself has rarely received in a romantic comedy such unfavorable billing , and one senses in this play the full depth of Shakespeare's cynicism. When Olivia pronounces, "Love sought is good, but given unsought is better," one wonders if Shakespeare believes it makes a particle of difference. Whether love is directed toward another or oneself, it is described as a kind of sickness, an indisposition more capricious than profound that can change with a change of clothes, literally.
Olivia readily transfers her affections from Viola to her twin, Sebastian, because he looksm the same and Orsino who was ready to die and perhaps even kill his rival "Cesario" for love of Olivia obligingly falls in love with Viola when he discovers "he" is a she.Only Viola, like "Patience on a monument" proves constant in her affections and survives with a modicum of dignity.
Significantly, the play ends not with merriment but an oath of revenge by the "notoriously abused" Malvolio. Alec McCowen brings to the role of that pompous prig obvious gusto and genius, and the scenes in which Malvolio finds the forged letter from Olivia and appears before her smiling, yellow-stocking and cross-gartered are the comic highlights of the play. Yet McCowen adroitly manipulates the audiences' sympathies, as Shakespeare intended, and elicits from us at the end pity for his pathos and guilt for taking pleasure in such cruel mischief. We are all, Shakespeare seems to suggest, callous creatures.
As for the rest of the cast, Felicity Kendal as Viola and Michael Thomas as Sebastian resemble each other sufficiently to give the mix-up a shred of plausibility.
The mix-like Miss Kendal brings to the difficult role of a eunuch a saucy sagacity that is more transcendental than transsexual. Sinead Cusack is appropriately beautiful and haughty as Olivia but fails to convince us of her sudden passion for Cesario. To be fair, however, Shakespeare is shameless in his outrageous demands on his actors' abilities and his audiences' credibilities.
Trevor Peacock is cosmically ironic as Feste, the clever fool and "corrupter of words," who sees through them all, but Clive Arrindel is disappointing as Orsino. His petulant delivery is evocative more of a refugee from a British rock group than an Itlian count. Ably providing the low comedy are Robert Hardy as the boisterous Sir Toby Belch, Annette Crosbie as the malicious servant Maria , and Ronnie Stevens as the mincing Sir Andrew Aguecheek. In fact Stevens deserves credit for the most memorable speech in the play, a throwaway line which he rescues from the welter of banter and utters with such startling poignancy that it assumes major significance: "I was adored once too."
This reason's subsequent productions include a repeat of "Richard II, "Henry IV, Part I," "Henry IV, Part II," "Henry V," and "The Tempest."