The production of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night by the English theatrical company Shakespeare’s Globe, currently at the Belasco Theatre, brings this play to life in a way I have only very rarely seen equaled in a Shakespearean production. The performances are so uniformly skillful, the interpretation of the play so intelligent and imaginative, and the costumes and stage set so accurate and evocative that the entire experience is exhilarating. Audiences at the performances I’ve attended have been overcome with delight, clearly somewhat surprised by the affecting immediacy of the theatrical experience they have undergone, unaccustomed to a Shakespeare so readily comprehensible and so vividly alive. You may, if you’re lucky, see another Shakespearean production that’s as good as this one, but it’s unlikely you will ever see one that’s better.
From the very outset, we are deftly drawn back into another, earlier world. The stage, dominated by a handsome reproduction of the early Jacobean oak screen at the entrance to the Hall at Merton College in Oxford, with part of the audience seated in temporary wooden stands on either side, recreates the ambiance of some Jacobean hall, whether at the Inns of Court or in some noble house, where Shakespeare’s plays were sometimes performed. For half an hour before the play begins, we watch as the actors are dressed in their costumes, as the musicians warm up with their period instruments, and as candles are lit in the chandeliers. The evocation of an early Jacobean performance is brilliantly achieved, not only with the stage set, the costumes, and the immediate presence of the audience, but also by having men dressed to play the parts of women, as was traditional until the reign of Charles II.
The elegant costumes, especially Olivia’s Spanish farthingale, lavish petticoats, and magnificent black silk-velvet robe, have, as a program note explains, been created with scrupulous authenticity (“no zips, no velcro”), each outfit requiring “between ten and twenty specialist craftspeople” for its creation. Even the undergarments, invisible when the actor is fully dressed, are completely authentic. This production is as faithful to its period as the performance is to Shakespeare’s text.
The earliest recorded performance of Twelfth Night took place on Candlemas (February 2), 1602, in the last year of Elizabeth’s reign, at the Middle Temple of the Inns of Court, although there is reason to suppose there had been at least one prior performance, possibly on Twelfth Night itself (January 6). Twelfth Night, the feast of the Epiphany, celebrating the presentation of the Christ child to the three kings, was one of the major feasts of the medieval and Tudor church, usually of greater importance than Christmas, as it is even today in some countries.
By Elizabeth’s time, it had long since become an occasion for merrymaking, bringing the Christmas holiday to a close, and it was traditionally presided over by a Lord …