The enduring legacy of Twelfth Night


“In our own times, Twelfth Night tends to come as the bathetic end to the Christmas holidays, if indeed we haven’t already returned to workaday routine long before this customary deadline for dismantling the tree and putting away the tinsel.”

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In Tudor and Stuart times, however, the celebration of the coming of the Magi was the climax of the Christmas revels. It was the occasion for parties, during which whoever found the bean baked into a special cake was appointed Lord of Misrule for the night, imposing elaborate forfeits even on social superiors.

In aristocratic households and at Court, it was a time for masked balls, music and plays.  Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night (1601) may have had its first performance at such a party, and with its themes of comic misprision, inversion and reconciliation – some of them anticipating those of today’s Christmas pantomimes: a girl dressed as a boy, an overweening servant tricked into dressing above his station, a fairytale family reunion – it would have been very much at home there.  

If its first home was a now-obsolete kind of Christmas party, Twelfth Night, like most of the Shakespeare canon, has gone on to find new venues and audiences for itself around the world ever since.

Although originally written for a boy actor, the role of Viola has served as a star vehicle for actresses from Hannah Pritchard to Imogen Stubbs and beyond – and indeed for a latter-day boy-actor, Eddie Redmayne, who made his professional debut in the part in 2002.

The play has spawned an off-Broadway rock opera (Your Own Thing, 1968), film adaptations (notably Trevor Nunn’s, 1996, with Nigel Hawthorne as Malvolio), and spin-offs including the American teen comedy She’s The Man (2006).

It also helped inspire the Oscar-winning Shakespeare in Love (1998), in which the cross-dressed Lady Viola ultimately becomes the inspiration for Shakespeare’s comedy (commissioned, with a nice in-joke for those who remember her Viola in the 1969 RSC production, by Judi Dench as Elizabeth I).  Modern revivals have often stressed the play’s recognition of the pain suffered by its losers, its sense that for the likes of Malvolio, Sir Andrew and Antonio this party is likely to be followed by a long hangover.

Thanks to the lasting worldwide appeal and adaptability of Shakespeare’s work, Twelfth Night 2016 marks not the end of a period of festivity but its beginning.

The year that coincides with the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death will see a well-nigh continuous series of celebratory events in Shakespeare’s home region and beyond: a major exhibition at Compton Verney; the BBC’s Birmingham-based ‘Shakespeare Lives’ project; CBSO’s ‘Our Shakespeare’ festival and BRB’s Shakespeare Triple Bill.

There is the Royal Shakespeare Company’s national collaboration with local amateur theatres on A Midsummer Night’s Dream and its live televised gala from Stratford on Shakespeare’s birthday, April 23; the performance of David Garrick’s Shakespeare ode, with the RSC actor Sam West, and poet laureate Carol Anne Duffy’s new musical piece responding to it, at Holy Trinity Church in Stratford and on tour around the Midlands; exhibitions at the Library of Birmingham and at the British Library; and arts events all across London throughout the year.

The summer will bring the Midlands and the capital together, with an unprecedented World Shakespeare Congress, co-hosted by the University of Birmingham, the RSC, the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, King’s College London and Shakespeare’s Globe, during which a thousand delegates will discuss, analyse and enjoy Shakespeare’s legacy, first in Stratford, Shakespeare’s home town, and then in London, the city where he made his career.

In Stratford, the University of Birmingham’s Shakespeare Institute will embark on its new collaboration with the RSC at its reopened Other Place studio theatre, ensuring that Shakespeare’s works remain fresh and in touch with the newest thinking in performance and creativity for the next 400 years.

As the play’s last line puts it, we’ll strive to please you every day. Welcome to a Twelfth Night with a difference.

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