JAMES TOPLEY SEES TWELFTH NIGHT
“Not all addictions are rooted in abuse or trauma, but I do believe they can all be traced to painful experience. A hurt is at the centre of all addictive behaviours.” Dr Gabor Maté - In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters with Addiction, 2008
Kirsty Bushell and Laurent de Montalembert’s impressive new production of Twelfth Night (Shakespeare, 1601) is performed by a rambunctious group of young and energetic actors who manage to offer us a unique spin on the themes orbiting this rom-com plot. If Twelfth Night were to be written today it would be a sort of aristocratic Love Island, or a choreographed The Only Way is Illyria.
This production moves at a rapid pace, is exceptionally funny and imbues the text with a welcomed originality through its primacy of addiction as a theme. It also makes interesting use of its low-rent, student house-y mise-en-scène and its young actors who use modern vocal inflections that bestow the occasionally stodgy style of Shakespeare with a fresh and humorous air.
Although contemporary, Bushell mercifully avoids the usual (post-)postmodern tact which most (post-)postmodern productions seem naturally magnetised towards when staging Twelfth Night for post-millennial consumption: the predictable, intersectionalist mishmash of Butler and Foucault’s respective genealogies of gender and sexuality. These meditations on the nature of sexuality, gender and identity are undeniably embedded within the original text, so whilst I do not wish to question the relevance or seriousness of these issues, I do wish to say that that particular angle on this play has been taken a thousand times before. (It has.)
What was surprising for me to hear as I spoke briefly to Bushell (for the sparse time that one can speak to a director in the few and frantic hours before a dress rehearsal), was that her primary impetus for staging this play was to address the psychology and physiology of addiction in Twelfth Night as a response to both trauma and desire. In the play, we see how love, drugs and physical attraction are seemingly interchangeable in relation to addictive behaviour. They all induce a similar yet profound psychological shift between what we really need and what we simply want. Upon viewing this production I came to realise that addiction, as a state of being, has always been a strong undercurrent that runs through Twelfth Night’s narrative and its characters’ motivations.
This production’s multi-faceted approach to addiction as a state of “devotion” (and/or “abandon”) frames the play. We are focussed into assessing our own experience of the human condition in relation to our enslavement to desire, whim and emotion. It is with Davy Roderick’s gurking Sir Toby Belch that this literal embodiment of addiction is most presently noticeable. Belch: an ignoble gentlemen hell-bent on proving the titular notions of nominative determinism; a veritable ale slave. Roderick burps his way through the incongruous lines of dialogue with a convincingly slack-jawed drawl that is played for equal parts laughter and fear as he stumbles on and off-stage spewing out flecks of half-chewed Monster Munch™ into the faces of his audience members and counterparts. This brilliant performance, paired with Thomas Murat’s pompous, buffooning Malvolio elevates the production into its moments of purest comedy.
Outside the comic subplot, addiction is presented not only in relation to substance abuse, but is also shown as a masochistic attachment to heightened emotional states; be they love, hate, sadness or pride. We are informed that The Countess, Olivia (played somewhat impishly by Julie Boillot), is “addicted to melancholy”. She is so devoted to the feeling itself that she shuns the orchestrated flirtations of The Duke (Tom Clegg), and can’t stand to see anyone around her express a smile. Meanwhile, The Duke himself is equally addicted/devoted/enslaved/driven to/by his own desires and love for The Countess. Thus, every character in this play is seemingly addicted to something, be it Belch to beer, Malvolio to order or The Duke to The Duchess. Whilst Sir Toby’s addictive nature is the most overt in that it is externalised, the ingenuity of this production lies in its relation of Sir Toby’s behaviour to the other characters’, making up the primary plot's complex quadrangle of love and devotion.
So whether you, dear reader, are addicted to drugs, sex or heightened emotional states (or if you're anything like me and enjoy a heady mix of all three) then you are sure to find a renewed interest in this performance of Twelfth Night, with its focus on the psychological mechanisms of obsession and desire and how addiction, to anything or anyone, can steadily corrode one’s free will and fixed sense of identity. Ultimately, this production serves to reminds us that we are all addicts in some shape or form.
“I am not an addict, I am the addict.”- William S. Burroughs - The Beginning Is Also The End, 1960
Twelfth Night ran at Latimer Road's Playground Theatre 10-11th January 2020. The production was by All One Theatre Company: an "internationally diverse company of actors known for their inclusivity....and daring nature."
A duo of films by James Topley and Sisi Savidge run in tandem with this production and will be released in January 2020 on GOATMILK.TV.