Twelfth Night

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Scene from 'Twelfth Night' ('Malvolio and the Countess') exhibited 1840 by Daniel Maclise 1806-1870

Today is Twelfth Night, which apparently is the exact day that you’re meant take the decorations down (although I believe I’m yet to find anyone who’s managed to adhere to that curiously dictatorial tradition). It’s also the name of a play by William Shakespeare – also called ‘What You Will’, and if you’re only vaguely familiar with the works of Shakespeare, you just need to know that this is the one where a girl dresses up as a boy. And there’s a shipwreck. And a long lost brother. Plus, there’s an argument / swordfight in the middle of the town.

No, not that play; the other one.

No, the other one.

No, the other other one.

There you go.

Anyway. When it comes to youth theatre and schools, Twelfth Night doesn’t get much of a mention, which as far as I’m concerned, is missing several boxes of tricks. Since we can already accepted that Shakespeare – particularly when it comes to kids – generally works better watched as a performance, or actually acted in , as opposed to having to read the scripts, which – to a significant number of teenagers, is going to be in a irrelevant and archaic language. Many kids – and then consequently, the adults they become – find Shakespeare boring and irrelevant.

This is why, I imagine, many youth productions or the school curriculum decide to put some glitter on the chore, and sell the kids one of the ‘exciting’ Shakespeares. Problem is, they often make a really fundamental mistake on what is going to be a relevant or interesting Shakespeare to young people today. Listen, the kids know that we’re trying to get them to eat their vegetables, they won’t care/listen if we claim we’ve sexed it up with bits of streaky bacon: the main meal is still cabbage.

One of the most popular choices is to try and make Shakespeare interesting  is A Midsummer Night’s Dream, mainly because it’s got a magical world of fairies in it, and partially because there’s a fair amount of knockabout comedy with a couple of cute couples. Problem is, it’s a deceptively complex plot which many adult casts get badly wrong – there is many a production that manages to make all the interludes with Bottom’s company of actors pretty tedious, which is a neat trick. The problem is that it’s easy to think that, because MND has all the fairies, silly actors, and fighting lovers lost in a forest in it, that there’s no need to do anything else. But fairies, silly actors, and fighting lovers lost in a forest are not things that happen in the day to day life of a teenager.

Another choice is Macbeth, which in theory isn’t a bad idea at all: it’s one of Will’s tightest scripts (it’s certainly his shortest), it feels the most cinematic, it’s got a ghost in it, and some good fights, along with a murder or two. And most importantly (and this is the gateway drug) it’s got three fun witches in it. But again, there’s not much there that’s relevant to kids today. The royal linage of a Scottish king isn’t something that many children care about.  

The other choice is Romeo And Juliet, which does have the advantage of being about kids being in love with someone that the parents don’t approve of. But Doing Exactly What Your Parents Tell you is something that started going out of fashion ever since James Dean whined about being torn about. And anyway, Romeo And Juliet is usually foisted on the kids by way of a hot young Leonardo DiCaprio. For kids who snapchat their relationship status in between

Which leaves us with Twelfth Night, which after everything else I’ve been talking about, may not sound like a good choice to bolster my argument since it mainly involves dukes and ladies, and men with titles over their names, all of which are not exactly going to feature in the average thirteen year olds life. But what it is about is this: getting drunk, being noisy, dressing up in stupid clothes, fancying someone who’s probably never going to fancy them back, and above all, an immature kid who keeps on listening to music when rejected by a loved one like a kid who’s just discovered his dad’s vinyl collection of Smiths albums. Which, to my mind, is very relevant to the life of most teenagers. The action is very snappy, as well, switching rapidly through a variety of quick-paced scenes that are confusing for the characters, but won’t lose the audience. Plus, there’s a subplot (which admittedly doesn’t always get interpreted this way in many productions) where the zany, silly gang of kids bully someone and take it too far. The fact that Malvolio is evidently something of a humourless prig doesn’t excuse the behaviour of Belch, Aguecheek and the rest: he doesn’t deserve the card he has been dealt. He, like many of the characters is very lonely, and so makes the wrong choices, which again is something that people are prone to do when they’re young. Being a teenager, Tori Amos tells us, is the loneliest place on earth, and for all its bawdiness, noise, and rude jokes, Twelfth Night is exactly that. Give it a chance above Romeo And Juliet and the horrifically overdone Midsummer Nights Dream. It might bring you good luck.

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