Casual sex changes in ‘Twelfth Night’

Subversive gender play in Shakespeare’s comedy enabled it to explore prohibited desires, and the Abbey’s update keeps things ‘a bit dangerous’


There you are, washed up on a foreign shore, a stranger in a strange land. You have survived a shipwreck and lost close family; you are grief-stricken but hopeful. You can choose to be anyone you want to be – even yourself.

In the case of Viola, the unmoored protagonist of Twelfth Night, she effects a radical transformation, making an adjustment to her costume that instantly changes her sex. “Conceal me what I am,” she tells her sole confidant, and slips immediately into a man’s world, to pursue employment in the service of a duke. It is a slyly subversive, destabilising beginning to a comedy: are gender roles anything more than a performance?

In Shakespeare’s time there was another layer to the prestidigitation of sexual identity. The audience appreciated that the actor playing Viola was a boy player, and the performance resembled a playful hall of mirrors: a boy playing a girl playing a boy.

Such self-reflexive gags must have made cross-casting seem strange again, which was no small order. From the female impersonators of ancient Greece to the boy players of the Renaissance stage, men wore the clothes of women onstage so frequently that the academic Aoife Monks concluded, “cross-dressing is the norm, not the aberration, of theatre practice”.

These days, however, theatrical gender-swapping plays a different role. It can be a radical aesthetic – last year, a Polish production of Frank McGuinness’s Greta Garbo Came to Donegal was shut down for casting a 6ft bald man in the role of the iconic female film star. It can also be a nostalgic reference: Edward Hall’s Shakespearean theatre company, Propeller, works exclusively with male performers. Or it can refer to the subculture of drag performers in traditional family entertainment, such as in the merry licence granted to every pantomime dame.

Stale realism in the theatre
If cross-dressing has ever come to seem transgressive, that’s more a reflection of how much our contemporary theatre has become subsumed by stale realism.

The Abbey’s new production of Twelfth Night steps lightly into this tradition, but it also shares amperage with more recent and politicised displays of queer identity and gender play on its own stage, and it seems subtly informed by them.

Two years ago we had Phillip McMahon’s Alice in Funderland, which turned Dublin into a candy-coloured playground of sexualities where Alice searched among enigmatic japesters, hysterical gays and acid drag queens for her own elusive identity.

Then, in January this year, someone in a figure-hugging plum dress, iridescent silver heels and a cumulus of blonde curls walked onstage at the end of a production of The Risen People and gracefully began a speech that went around the world. “Hello. My name is Panti, and for the benefit of the visually impaired or the incredibly naive, I am a drag queen, a performer, and an accidental and occasional gay-rights activist.”

By her usual standards, this was a modest intro – Panti’s more evocative descriptors include “gender illusionist” and “gender discombobulist”. But following a heated month in which Rory O’Neill had addressed homophobia in Ireland to infamously litigious response, appearing onstage as his radiant alter-ego had an eloquence equal to the content of the speech. The play has long been a vehicle to explore prohibited desires, so how does it work in a society busily overcoming such hang-ups?

‘People call her “sir” a bit’
In the bar of the Abbey Theatre the other day, just before opening night, the director Wayne Jordan was discussing audience reactions to a casual sex change in his version of Twelfth Night. Elaine Fox had been cast in the role of Valentine, a servant of the Duke Orsino, which Jordan had expanded. Valentine was now a woman but, in accordance with the text, she was often addressed as a man: “People call her ‘sir’ a bit in the play,” admitted Jordan. “And she doesn’t like it.” He wasn’t yet convinced that it worked. “They liked the second one last night,” he said to Fox. “That landed.”

It may sound like a small thing, this second “sir”, but it significantly changes the logic of the play. If a woman can be employed in the service of Orsino, why would Viola then have to disguise herself as a man to get a job? In Jordan’s version, Viola’s reason to transform herself into Cesario depends on psychology rather than plot mechanics. In a play awash with grief – both Viola and Olivia have lost their brothers – mourning becomes transforming.

“She doesn’t know who she is at that moment,” says Sophie Robinson, who plays Viola/Cesario. “To lose a twin is such a big thing. She’s lost all her identity.”

Viola’s act, then, is to turn herself into a living monument to her brother. “She wakes up in a tragedy,” says Jordan, “decides to dress up as her brother and go over the hill and be in a comedy. She tries to be on the periphery of life, only to find herself right in the centre: I am a man. And that life is inescapable.”

Costumes in focus
Twelfth Night foregrounds one of the most subtly transforming devices of the theatre: costume. In the play, characters defy convention and come to see the world and themselves differently. Famously, the grieving Olivia falls for a lowly emissary, Cesario, who turns out to be a woman. Even after the resolution returns everyone to heterosexual partnerships, Orsino can’t bring himself to regard his lover as a woman: “Cesario, come – for so you shall be while you are a man.”

Costume unsettles fixed categories of gender and class (the undoing of the puritanical steward Malvolio, whose gravest offence is to be a social-climber, involves wearing yellow stockings) and allows the exploration of desires that Elizabethan society would never otherwise tolerate.

Nobody would argue that contemporary Irish society is a utopia of tolerance, but it is considerably freer of restrictions. Take Emma Fraser’s costumes, a present-day panoply of fashions, where the “norm” is largely androgynous: epicene boys wear skin-tight denims, the twins sport loose sailor tops, and, in one spectacular fillip, a character is completely consumed by his undergarments.

The idea is to create a look that is playful, timeless and young; in short, an adolescence of design where gender is still plastic, unformed. “Kind of like nowadays, where people can do whatever they want,” says Jordan. “Sex isn’t as big an issue in our world of the play. I don’t think people care whether you kiss girls or boys that much. There are much softer borders around gender.”

That seems, encouragingly, as though the world of the play and the world outside the theatre have met each other halfway – Shakespeare’s subtitle, What You Will, is emblazoned on the rear wall of Ciarán O’Melia’s set, like a permissive decree. In fact, Jordan came to the play, which he had originally considered “an Elizabethan episode of Friends – after the first bit of predicament, really all the people have to do is get over themselves” – frustrated by restrictions.

“I wanted to do something that would be urban, intelligent and vital, because I was getting offered a lot of things that were either set in the past, or very rural, or full of people that didn’t have access to expression,” he says. The issue in those plays was that people weren’t able to say what they wanted to say. I found that a little stultifying, because it wasn’t my experience. I also felt it wasn’t an Irish condition any more.”

The play, with its liberating disguises and complex desires, may speak to that modernity, but it too must change, tailored once more to suit a society in transformation.

Twelfth Night has always been a popular play, largely because there’s so many different kinds of fun to be had in it,” says Jordan. “But when it’s opened up, it feels a bit dangerous. The idea of transformation is just so big; that maybe we should know ourselves better, maybe we should be more than we are.”

Twelfth Night is at the Abbey Theatre until May 2

* This article was amended on May 6th, 2014. Sophie Robinson was incorrectly named as Sophie Robertson in the original version.

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