Earlier this year, as part of our Academic Enrichment Programme, a group of students went to Chichester Festival Theatre to see Flute Theatre’s production of Twelfth Night. We are lucky to have several theatres in and around Portsmouth. This play is a set text on our L6 unit, Dangerous Desires: Renaissance Revenge Drama and to have a production of a play on our curriculum produced close by was too good an opportunity to miss! Students from all levels of the undergraduate degree came along on the trip so this was an opportunity for students from different year groups to get to know each other and build our literary community through their shared interest in Shakespeare. Students commented:
“I enjoyed the trip as I think seeing Shakespeare’s plays performed live is an invaluable experience to literature students as there is so much more that can be interpreted within the non spoken context that can enrich our understanding and be transferred to other plays.” (Amber, Level 5)
“Even though I do not study the unit that this play was for, I still found it to be very beneficial and rewarding. The company who performed it were amazing actors and I especially liked how it was such a simple yet strong portrayal of the play. (Kayleigh, L6)
The production was innovative, working with minimal props and modern costume. The actors played multiple roles (as Shakespeare’s actors probably would have) and they provided their own music. They never left the stage – they were either acting or playing the accompanying music. At one point, the actress playing Sir Toby was playing her cello at the same time as she and other actors were using it as the box tree behind which they were hiding to spy on Malvolio. There was a wealth of international talent on display here.
Some highlights for me were in the presentation of Malvolio (played by the one actor to play only one part). He was the only character wearing a formal suit and the only performer wearing shoes, introduced sombrely kneeling and listening to Olivia playing sorrowful music on her cello before the arrival of Caesario. The painful humiliation of Malvolio made to perform his private desires in public to be set free from his trick-induced incarceration towards the end of the play was tangible.
The playing of multiple parts, particularly those where one actor/ess played both male and female roles – sometimes only indicating the switch by the addition of a waistcoat, or tying back of hair, and some not clearly indicated at all – added to the possibilities of the fluidity of identity and desire that are key themes of the play itself. When Sebastian asked ‘Are all the people mad’ and was immediately kissed by Olivia, for a moment it was Sir Andrew Aguecheek kissing Olivia, and Sir Toby kissing Sir Andrew and Olivia kissing Sebastian all at the same time.
For those who were familiar with the plot, the confusion of identities brought about by playing multiple roles added an extra dimension to their reading of the play:
“When reading a play, the image of how it looks on stage is often lost. However, this particular production of Twelfth Night combined costume with the central theme of mistaken identity to group together more characters than the script initially suggests. In doing so, it created a dynamic performance that brought together the various layers of the play.” (Sophie, L6)
For those who were unfamiliar with the play it was, though, a little confusing. Nevertheless, everyone enjoyed the performance, and some students found the trip useful in understanding the play when we later read it on the Dangerous Desires unit:
I liked that they didn’t rely heavily on props but focused more on how they used their own bodies/clothing to distinguish between character changes and dramatic performances. I thought the play was quite funny in places, too. I had never actually seen a Shakespeare play (at a theatre) before, so I quite enjoyed a new experience that also helped me to visualise the play’s plot once I’d read it. (Madison, L6)
“I really enjoyed the trip as seeing the performance made the play a lot easier to understand, but it was also nice to see how the play can be interpreted by different theatre productions!” (Jade, L6)
All of the comments that our students made: that seeing a performance helps to visualise the plot, performance choices bring out themes of the play, and performance presents a particular interpretation of the play are key reasons that live theatre is important in studying drama. The students’ responses to the trip show that experiencing theatre together is valuable in itself, but also that it helps develop understanding, not only of one particular play, but of the possibilities for multiple emphases and interpretations in and of that play. If you are interested in studying literature and the opportunity arises, go to the theatre!