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Louis Butelli and Robert Richmond: Talking Twelfth Night

Hello again from your pal Louis Butelli. I’ll be playing Nym in Henry V and Feste in Twelfth Night later this season at the Folger.

It’s a wealth of riches here at the Folger Production Diary, where I’ve been asked to do a couple of entries to go alongside Jay Dunn’s incredible account of putting together The Conference of the Birds, which opens on October 23. Please do yourself a favor and buy a ticket immediately!

Here, then, is part two of my conversation with director Robert Richmond. Part one is here. I recorded this part of the conversation in Robert’s car on the way to the airport in Charlotte, NC. What follows herein is a chat about Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night which is heading to the Folger later this season (April 30 – June 9, 2013) – and the sheer delight of eating breakfast sandwiches from BoJangles. Well, we don’t actually talk about BoJangles. But we do eat the sandwiches.

Please enjoy, and thank you for reading the Production Diary!


Louis Butelli (LB): So, Robert. Why perform Twelfth Night, and why now?

director, Robert Richmond

Robert Richmond (RR): Well, Twelfth Night is a play that deals with the darker side of humans’ emotions. It’s appealing, I think, because it deals with the injustices we impose on each other. It can be a little bit cruel, and maybe revealing of surprises and strangeness in other people.

Why now? I think we live in a moment in history that, politically, seems to be in a sort of stasis. And there is a sense that Ilyria, too, is frozen in inaction. It takes the arrival of Viola to somehow be a catalyst in creating a future for that society. And, at a moment of electing a leader, one wonders if we’ll find a way to break through the ideological stasis we seem stuck in now.

LB: The play is a comedy, though, right?

RR: It is, of course, a comedy.

LB: Right. So, I wonder. Do you have a particular approach in directing a comedy that is, in some way, different from how you would approach a tragedy or a history play?

Historic print of Malvolio, 1849

RR: Not fundamentally. At the bottom line, I think the job is to find the story and the truth behind the characters. You know, we place these characters into situations that, hopefully, will become amusing. But I do think that Twelfth Night, more than some of the earlier comedies, perhaps, takes a slightly bleaker view of what people do to each other. You know, they lock Malvolio in a dark room and deny him any way of communicating his innocence. They make him dress up and prance around as a sort of…yellow…thing –

LB: Like Big Bird.

RR: Like Big Bird, yeah. And it seems that there’s a kind of cruelty to the humor here that I think is worth exploring.

LB: OK, so, if there’s this kind of schaedenfreude, this delight in the misfortune of others at the center of this play, what does that say about us as people? Should our takeaway be that Malvolio has been correctly punished, or that these people are just horrible and cruel?

RR: Right, well that’s a question that I think all productions of the play have to take on. I suspect, but can’t really prove, that for an Elizabethan or a Jacobean audience, that some revenge upon “the Puritan” was very appealing. That may not mean much to us right now – and I’ve certainly seen Malvolio drawn as the victim of the piece – but, I have to say, personally, I think that he gets all that he deserves. That his ego and his pomposity are ridiculous. And I would hope that in our production, we’re able to somehow show both sides of that coin.

LB: The Coin of Cruelty.

RR: Quite.

LB: So just briefly, since you mention Puritanism. You’re from the UK and, historically I guess, the Puritans were kicked out of your homeland and came here to create ours, essentially. Do you think that there’s a kind of “Puritanism” hardwired into “American-ness” at all?

RR: I’m not sure I’d call it “Puritanism” per se. But I do think there are certain moral and religious and social issues that crop up again and again in American culture. As someone who currently lives in the American South, I think that one becomes aware of taboos that perhaps, in the 21st century, can seem a little bit “old fashioned.” But I’m sure it’s the same case in the UK as well. As far as Malvolio goes, in terms of the UK now, I think we would respond more viscerally to the idea of someone behaving “above his station,” as it were.

LB: Trying to display a higher status.

RR: Yes.

LB: Interesting. In terms of status – it seems that one of the key components to building a comedy are extreme reversals in status. You know, we seem to like it when the wealthy banker slips on a banana peel and falls into a mud puddle. We seem to like it when, you know, Mitt Romney –

RR: Slips on a banana peel?

LB: And falls into a vat of bright orange TV makeup, yeah. Are status transactions going to be something you look to in building this comedy?

RR: Yeah. I think the “master-servant” relationship figures pretty heavily in the events of the play. I mean the title of the play itself – Twelfth Night– refers, in part, to an old English holiday tradition when a six-pence was put inside of a Christmas pudding, and whichever guest received the helping of pudding with the six-pence in it –

LB: They would break their teeth.

RR: Yeah, they would break their teeth. But they also would become “Master of the Feast” for the night. So the lowest ranking person in the room could become the highest on this night. And this inversion, this topsy-turviness, if that’s a thing –

LB: I don’t know that it is a thing, but I know what you mean.

RR: This “topsy-turviness,” I think, will become an important part of our evening. We seem to always respond to these kinds of stories. Think of The Prince and the Pauper.

LB: Or The Lord of the Rings.

RR: I’m not sure I agree with you on that one.

LB: So, just to stick with “topsy-turviness” as a thing, then –

RR: See? It is a thing!

LB: I guess it is, yeah. I just wonder, in that regard, about how gender works in the play for you. Certainly Shakespeare uses cross-gendering –

RR: And twins, and shipwrecks –

LB: It’s a bit like a “greatest hits” of comic tropes.

RR: “They worked once, let’s throw them all in!”

LB: “If one donut is good, why not have six?”

RR: Donuts are quite good.

The Love Triangle in Twelfth Night

LB: Regardless. He uses cross-gendering fairly frequently in his comedies, but in Twelfth Night it seems to be particularly heavy duty. The Orsino-Olivia-Viola triangle certainly gets very complex when we think of who is in love with whom.

RR: Even more complex when we consider that in Shakespeare’s company, all of the female roles would have been played by boys anyway.

LB: A boy dressed as a girl dressed as a boy.

RR: It boggles the mind.

LB: But it does seem to me that Orsino falls “in love” with somebody who he believes to be a boy, and is relieved when that person turns out to be a girl. And then Olivia falls in love with someone she believes to be a boy, is dismayed when she turns out to be a girl, and is ultimately relieved again when a “boy version” of that girl miraculously appears. And then, speaking of that boy version, Sebastian, he spends the play with his companion Antonio who appears to have feelings for him that, perhaps, extend beyond the traditional parameters of a platonic friendship. And again, as you say, for the original company, all of these people, biologically if not literarily, would have been boys anyway. All of which, I suppose, is to wonder if you think there are any “gay themes” in the play. Or, rather, is that over-complicating things? Would this all have been fairly straightforward for an Elizabethan or Jacobean audience? Should we just “get over it” in the year 2012?

RR: Yes, we probably should.

LB: Great.

RR: Look, of course those things are there, but I’m not yet certain how playable they are. We’ll dive in, and see what we discover in rehearsal.

LB: Now you’re talking!

RR: Let’s move on.

LB: That’s probably best. So, you and I have collaborated previously on a production of Twelfth Night, which toured and played Off-Broadway. That version, if we had to boil it down, was a sort of mash up – lutes and harpsichords meet drum and bass. Lace and ruffs, and leather. Do you have any kind of similar framework in mind for this production?

The LusitaniaRR: Well, for this one I’m sort of interested in the very early 20th century. The period just as the First World War was beginning. I keep thinking of the sinking of the Lusitania – and I wonder what if that was the shipwreck, somehow, that set Viola and Sebastian off on their journey. And I’m interested in the sort of visual aesthetic of “Downton Abbey,” and the sense of a large social order contained within these houses – with servants and knights thrown together behaving badly. That’s the sort of world we’re thinking about right now.

LB: So there’s one very important piece of the puzzle that we haven’t covered yet – perhaps the most important part of the show. By which, of course, I mean the character of Feste.

RR: I believe you are playing that role.

LB: Correct. What do you suppose his function is within this world?

RR: Do you mean apart from annoying me?

LB: Yes.

RR: Well, he’s the go-between, the mediator between these two households, between Olivia and Orsino. He has the ability, more than anyone else, as you say about clowns, to “speak truth to power.” And, if you look at some of what he says, and some of the songs he sings, I think he brings a kind of bizarre cynicism to this comedy. I’m seeing him, in this world, as almost a gardener – someone who is attached to the land in an almost mystical way – but has a connection to the two households, and an external relationship to Viola as she travels between those houses.

LB: Sort of a mystical singing gardener, then.

RR: Sure.

LB: I’ll see what I can do.


And that, as they say, is that! Thanks again for reading – please comment and share if you like. And keep returning for more from me and from Jay Dunn.

Until next time!


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