Every year, as part of its relatively new Globe for All program, The Old Globe performs a Shakespeare play for free at various community venues. Twelfth Night is the third Globe for All performance our family has seen.
The venue we attend, at the San Diego Central Library, uses the Shiley Special Events Suite on the 9th floor – the roof – of the downtown library. This floor is set up as a miniature campus, with individual buildings set in a open rooftop space. The Shiley Special Events Suite is a standalone structure with a back-of-the-house catering area fronted by a soaring open space with floor-to-ceiling windows providing panoramic views and lashings of natural afternoon light.
Because the performances use community spaces, the staging is created around the absence of a stage in the traditional sense. At the Central Library, the stage was set square in the middle of the room with rows of chairs on each of the four faces. Each corner was left open for entrances and exits. Props were arrayed on tables on three sides, with the fourth side having the prompt/call book, and all the costuming and prep took place in full view of the audience, although behind the opposite bank of seats.
Before the show started, the play’s director took the stage to do a quick warm-up/survey of the audience, including some fun audience participation bits to get people into the swing of Shakespearean language in performance.
For those unfamiliar with the plot of Twelfth Night, here’s a six-sentence version. Viola and Sebastian are twins of minor nobility, indistinguishable except that one is a woman and one is a man. They are separated in a shipwreck in which each thinks the other has died. Stranded in a hostile country, Viola disguises herself as a man named Cesario and enters the service of the local Duke Orsino, who uses Cesario to deliver messages of love to Olivia, a local countess. Olivia refuses Orsino, but falls in love with Cesario, which is bad because not only is Cesario in fact Viola, but Viola has fallen in love with Orsino. A major subplot involves the gulling of Olivia’s arrogant steward Malvolio by her chambermaid and houseguests. Unbeknownst to anyone, Viola’s twin brother Sebastian arrives in town and much chaos ensures before the twins are reunited and the couples sort themselves into traditionally gender-appropriate pairs.
The play was done in modern dress, but the text was Shakespeare’s. The set was simple: two chaise longues with an elaborate drinks cart between them, a slightly extravagant patio chair, a brace of potted plants, a floor mat indicating water, and another floor mat indicating a boardwalk or perhaps a dock. Illyria was set on the U.S./Mexico border, a trenchant update.
To emphasize the bicultural nature of the story, several lines were spoken in Spanish, some throw-away lines and other key lines that were either understood in context or essentially restated in English. The musical interludes were particularly outstanding, making full use of several performers who could play guitar and sing as well as act. A few PG-rated lines and actions were included, but they were done in ways that put them more in the potty humor class; the small children in the audience were as tickled as the adults. And, in a fun revision, the fencing duel was rendered as a boxing mismatch between a towering but cowering Sir Andrew and a petite but reluctantly game Viola/Cesario.
Because the play was performed in daylight and in the round, the action and actors were far less isolated than in conventional stagings. Audience members in the first rows found themselves made part of the play as actors interacted with them, hid behind them, ran through them, or even asked for help with a particular prop, all of which made the story come even more to life.
If there was any loss it was that the streamlined interpretation gave short shrift, in varying degrees, to secondary characters: Malvolio became more bumptious, Sir Toby Belch more depraved, Sir Andrew more vapid, and Feste more yobbish, all as suited a performance focused on Olivia and Viola’s parallel journeys to love.
The great gain, in these Globe for All performances, is that they are followed by a question-and-answer period in which the audience can engage with the actors and the play.
The Globe for All program deserves kudos for bringing live Shakespeare into the community and making it free and easy for everyone to experience. Twelfth Night continues for five more performances, including two final shows on Sunday, November 19, at The Old Globe’s rehearsal space inside Balboa Park’s House of Charm. That’s the week San Diego schools are off for Thanksgiving break, so there’s no school the next day and no excuse for not taking the kids!