Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night Receives Queer Update

Ivan Aidun

The twang of a banjo was the first of many surprises in Monday night’s presentation of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, directed by College senior Jenny Kneebone in the Little Theater. The play follows Viola (College sophomore Ronit Schorr), a shipwrecked girl who disguises herself as a boy named Cesario, and enters employ as a messenger for the local Duke Orsino (College first-year Quentin Nguyen-duy). As the Duke’s messenger, she delivers missives of his love to the Countess Olivia (College first-year Christine Impara), who ends up falling in love with Cesario.

Though the play is more than 400 years old, this production felt remarkably fresh, something that something that Kneebone deliberately emphasized. “I wanted to test my own ability to make Shakespeare exciting and relevant to a modern audience,” she said. The play addresses themes relevant to contemporary audiences, which Kneebone sought to bring out in the production. “Originally, I wanted to do a play about queer women, in a way, but I was having trouble finding a modern one that was funny and upbeat rather than sad,” she said. Instead, she found both depth and comedy in Twelfth Night. “I decided to go with Twelfth Night because to me the ending has always been very unsettling; the fact that Olivia has married the wrong person, and she’s supposed to just be OK with this,” she said.

“We wanted to play with [identity and mistaken identity], and we also wanted to play with the unrequited love themes and then the fluidity of gender and sexuality,” Kneebone elaborated, referencing Olivia’s relationship to Viola.

“The ending of our production didn’t tie everything up in a neat little bow. Olivia does not get a happy ending; instead, we acknowledge that she’s still in love with Cesario/Viola,” Impara said.

Another layer of complexity was shown through Orsino’s growing love for Cesario, whom he nearly kisses during a dance before pulling himself back.

“According to Orsino, his eternal curse throughout the play is his love sickness,” Nguyen-duy said of his character. However, the relationship Orsino establishes with Cesario is unlike the passionate love he proclaims to need. “I used the sincerity of his companionship with Cesario … to contrast Orsino’s blind romanticization of Olivia,” he added.

However, because of Orsino’s social standing, he cannot acknowledge when this companionship turns into more than that for him. “He doubles down on his Olivia-pining by overcompensating with his romantic stuff” said Nguyen-duy, who believes Orsino is emotionally unfulfilled and ultimately hollow. “He’s a pretty unhappy guy. I feel awful for him.”

Kneebone also placed the play in the context of the 1920s: The actors dressed like flappers and blues music pervaded the production. “I wanted to update [the play] from the 1500s,” she said, “and I felt like the ’20s [was] good because it’s more relatable to an audience today.”

Kneebone also said the 1920s setting maintained most of the social parameters necessary for the motivation of the plot. “There was a very big underground queer scene in certain areas in the ’20s, so I wanted to nod to that as well,” she said

One manifestation of this setting came in the form of the clown, Feste (College junior Han Taub), who carried a banjo and sang the blues throughout. “It’s Shakespeare’s lyrics that are actually in the text, but [Han] wrote all the music,” Kneebone said. “They created that.” Kneebone noted also that the banjo served to show Feste’s class in the setting, contrasting them from the well dressed dukes and countesses.

In the final scene, Olivia has accidentally married Viola’s twin, Sebastian (College first-year Leah Treidler), and Viola has revealed her love for Orsino. However, Kneebone chose to take the scene beyond the one that originally appeared in the play. “I wanted to represent both that Olivia is not happy with her situation … and also that Viola might be conflicted about her feelings towards Olivia,” Kneebone said. “I think even though Twelfth Night is traditionally a comedy — and obviously it’s very funny throughout — the ending has to be bittersweet.” As Viola and Olivia are left alone, Olivia gives Viola one final kiss before they part; the lights fade and Feste finishes the show singing, “The rain it raineth every day.”

This complex, modernized performance of a Shakespeare classic brought out the truth of a quote by Robert Graves, which appeared on the back of the program: “The remarkable thing about Shakespeare is that he is really very good — in spite of all the people who say he is very good.”