Culture: Now for something completely different; Director Lindsay Posner talks to Terry Grimley about staging Shakespeare's Twelfth Night in its 400th anniversary year.
Shakespeare's most popular comedy, Twelfth Night, may be celebrating its 400th anniversary this year, but director Lindsay Posner has chosen to set his new production at Stratford less than a century ago.
'I wanted to get away from the Elizabethan period,' he explains. 'It feels a bit inaccessible and it carries baggage and a lot of preconceptions - for example, that Toby Belch should be like Falstaff. On the other hand, it doesn't stand setting in the 21st century because I think the question of sexual identity in the play needs to operate against convention - which wouldn't happen now, when a girl dressing up as a man would have no shock value whatsoever.
'So I chose the Edwardian period, or the period just before the First World War, because here was a leisured class who had time to think about love and were also becoming rather unsettled, with all sorts of new ideas entering into social conventions.
'You had people like the Bloomsbury group who were beginning to experiment with art and sex. Modern art was shown in Britain for the first time at the Grafton Gallery in 1910. It seemed very appropriate from that point of view.'
Posner is making his debut in the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, having directed last season's outstanding production of The Rivals in the Swan Theatre. His next project will be Moliere's Tartuffe at the National Theatre, with Martin Clunes.
He points out that while Twelfth Night is nominally set in Illyria, it is actually very English. And while in Shakespeare's time people would have been used to seeing 'men dressed as women dressed as men', his introduction of a pair of identical twins of different sex - a biological impossibility - was highly subversive.
'These people are very open to temptation,' he points out. 'They don't have anything to lose. They don't seem to have any parents living, and they each believe the other is dead.
'I think what Shakespeare was suggesting was that gender isn't important, that the whole experience of love goes beyond that.'
Shakespeare had used identical twins before, in The Comedy of Errors, borrowing them from the Italian tradition as levers of farcical misunderstanding.
'He has taken it further in Twelfth Night,' says Posner. 'This is a much more serious and profound play than Comedy of Errors. The comedy in the play hopefully emerges from absolute seriousness, and that renders it more interesting.'
Although on one level Twelfth Night is one of the funniest and most charming of Shakespeare's plays, there is plenty of unease beneath the surface. Much of the comedy has a cruel edge, which in Malvolio's case can be wince-making, however much of his arrogance seems to invite his fall.
'The tone of comedy in Twelfth Night reminds me of Chekhov,' says Posner. 'There's no real harmony at the end of the play. Antonio is left on his own; Olivia and Orsino, though they end up with people of the opposite sex, are left to question who it is they have fallen in love with. Orsino tells Viola he is not going to marry her until he has seen her wearing a dress.
'There is no real sense of resolution in the end. Belch's life is destroyed and Aguecheek is devastated when he hears what Belch really thinks about him.
'Belch is another tragic character but he's not deluded. He ends up cutting his losses and marries a servant. There is still very much a class awareness in the play. Money is power.'
Twelfth Night is previewing now; press night May 10, then in repertory until October 12.
Wayne Cater as Fabian and Barry Stanton as Sir Toby Belch in Twelfth Night Picture/MANUEL HARLAN Director Lindsay Posner