Members of the Education staff met with Josie Rourke to discuss her approach to directing Shakespeare, as well as her thoughts about her upcoming production of Twelfth Night here at CST.
CST: Let’s begin by talking about your decision to set your production of Twelfth Night in the Elizabethan period.
Josie Rourke: Social status is crucial to this play. You see a lot of productions of Twelfth Night set in the Victorian period because that world makes sense of who and what a servant is. The Trevor Nunn film version is a bit like that. Robert Altman’s Gosford Park illustrates that particularly English sensibility. In that context, the Malvolio character immediately makes sense. The sting of status comes up in that first scene between Cesario and Olivia when she tries to pay the page, and Cesario is mortally offended by it. We need a sense of Olivia’s status to understand what she’s trying to play and the world in which she’s trying to operate and survive. I think we get that through setting it in the Elizabethan period.
It’s also a very sensual period. There’s so much in the play about clothing, and un-clothing, and re-clothing. There’s a great French film called Queen Margot set around the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre, the slaughter of the Huguenots in Paris in 1572: visually, it’s absolutely stunning—very sumptuous in some parts and very disgusting in others. When these court women in their beautiful dresses walk through the streets, their dresses get dirty. You really feel like they are clothed and not costumed. That’s what I mean by referring to our design as “dirty Elizabethan.”
CST: As a comedy, would you say that there’s never really any doubt in our minds that it’s all going to turn out well for the characters we care about?
JR: Unless you care about Malvolio.
CST: True…a good percentage of the play is devoted to the humiliation of Malvolio, and much of its comedic force is driven by it.
JR: There’s a way of thinking about Twelfth Night as a “suitor play.” The Merchant of Venice is another good example: there’s a virgin who’s very rich and never wants to marry, and different men turn up and try to marry her. Malvolio is one of those suitors. He’s really serious about wanting to obtain this woman and everything that represents. Orsino and Andrew are suitors too, as is Cesario in some ways. You can see how that provides a kind of framework for the play.
If you think about the play in those terms, Malvolio is Olivia's final suitor, dispatched and dealt with in the last scene. You have a set of people who want to marry this woman, apart from the one whom she wants. How do you solve that? Well, guess what? There’s a twin! Isn’t that marvelous! But that’s almost too neat, isn’t it, and Shakespeare is many things, but he’s not neat.
CST: Do you imagine this comedy ends darkly, then?
JR: Well, how do we define a comedy? Our 21st-century grip on comedy is extremely dark. To me, the most fascinating aspect of Shakespeare’s comedic resonance is how it walks that line—the proximity of laughter to tears, of joy to horror. The tauter you stretch that line, the better. The more taut that line is, for me, the more tense and compelling I find the drama.
CST: And Shakespeare starts this comedy rife with death and loss.
JR: Grief is famously hard to write because it’s an inactive emotion, but Shakespeare has managed to do that brilliantly in Twelfth Night—to find a way where grief is active and acted upon. There’s a sense in which Olivia needs shaking out of her mourning. You just want to go, “Oh, snap out of it!” You’re completely sympathetic to the fact that she’s lost her father and her brother but, logically, she should marry the richest man in town—everybody else seems to think he’s fantastic.
Viola wakes Olivia up out of her grief. Those two women are in the same position: they’ve both lost a father and a brother in a very short space of time. One of them is dealing with it by dressing in black and refusing the advances of the hottest bachelor in town, and one of them is dealing with it by dressing up as a boy and going around causing trouble. Orsino is nursing a kind of grief too and Olivia will have nothing to do with him. They both ball up their emotions into something rather beautiful and spend all day holding their ball of grief up to the light and examining it.
Viola and Sebastian make people impulsive and they make people do things they wouldn’t normally do. Everyone submits to them. Somehow these twins are able to tilt the lives of other characters to an extreme, where they start to express things about themselves and take risks they wouldn’t normally take.
CST: And be attracted to people they wouldn’t be attracted to ordinarily.
JR: Yes. It’s a very sexual play. It’s easy to forget that part of Shakespeare’s fun was having a boy dressed up as a girl who then dresses up as a boy, falling in love with a boy dressing up as a girl. And you’ve lost track, haven’t you? After a certain point, it doesn’t matter at all. That was the culture of the epoch. I imagine people didn’t think about it very much—you accepted that it was a girl, even though everyone knew it was a boy actor. The Elizabethans had a similar attitude to sexuality. Sexuality existed as a spectrum. There was no such thing as “coming out.” People just slept with whomever they fancied. There were complicating factors like marriage, but then marriage was much more clearly a contract about wealth.
When people get married in Shakespeare’s plays, the play stops because the characters are no longer interesting. As Byron said, “All tragedies are finished by a death, all comedies are ended by a marriage.” People who keep spinning that sense of who they might be and where they might land give you a play.
CST: We haven’t yet talked about Feste. He’s such a different sort of fool—certainly not a particularly happy fool.
JR: I’m interested in how Feste’s failed as a fool: what made him so angry in his “day job” that he had to leave? I don’t feel like he’s left for a personal reason, like his aunt has just died and he had to leave town. He has these absences from work, as if he can only take Illyria in small doses. Part of it must be that his main source of income has been Olivia’s house, which doubtless has become a very different place since the death of her father and brother. Between that and Malvolio’s influence over the house, there’s certainly something to get away from. It’s fascinating that he kindles so quickly to Malvolio’s jibes, when really anything that Malvolio says should be water off a duck’s back. There’s a sensitivity in him involving his ability to deal with his job. One of the first things you hear Feste soliloquize about is, “Let me get this right, let me get this right.” It’s like watching an actor in the wings before he goes onstage going, “Oh my God, let me not mess this up.”
That’s a fascinating conversation where someone who’s not always succeeding in their job comes back and finds himself wrapped up in a way that a fool shouldn’t be in the day-to-day goings on of a household. He really oversteps a line. Actually, if you think of Viola as another fool figure within the play, they both get too close to what’s going on and lose their objectivity. That’s the nature of Illyria. It’s a whirlpool that will drag you in if you stay in it for too long.
CST: It’s always interesting to people to know more about a director’s process. What edition of the script do you use? Do you work from the first Folio?
JR: I start with the first Folio and then I prepare my own edition of the play. I sit with the Folio on screen and a couple of the editions that I think are the best. I look at edited punctuation mainly. Penguin gives good, nice, quick glosses, and the Arden gives long notes: “We think he probably pulled on his sock here,” a 12-page note on that. I then extrapolate and do my own notes on the play. The third layer is at the library, where I have my own kind of process of looking up etymologies in a complete OED, the Oxford English Dictionary. I evolved the process when I directed a Philip Massinger play that hadn’t been done for 300 years called Believe As You List, or Believe What You Will—the RSC re-titled it. There were no scholarly editions of it. That’s when I developed this method of finding my own kind of scholarship of the text, just to prepare.
CST: Why do you start with the first Folio text?
JR: Because I get irritated with scholarly punctuation. This is kind of a truism but, like all clichés, it’s a cliché because it’s really true: in classical acting, thought is breath. Where you breathe allows the audience to follow the thought of the line, the meaning of the line, its travel, as it were. It gives the sense and, if you’re very lucky, it gives the feeling of the line. Actors tend to be extremely respectful, certainly English actors are, of punctuation. Punctuation in Shakespeare’s time meant something completely different from punctuation now. So if an editor has inserted a comma where there wasn’t a comma, or if they’ve commuted a semicolon to a dash, or if they’ve put a full-stop at the end of the line where it doesn’t exist—each editor has their own style or their own way of translating different punctuation marks. I could go on about the history of the semicolon for hours! I won’t dismay anyone by doing that. It’s about interpretation really, looking for a clean interpretation. Doing my own punctuation from the baseline of the Folio, if the Folio exists for the play, I begin to hardwire the meaning, to start in a good place.
CST: So you’re starting with the Folio punctuation and you’re creating your own edition, looking at what a couple of contemporary editors have done, and then making your own decisions about what feels right.
JR: Exactly. When you work with some actors, brilliant classical actors with Oxford educations, you may have a 20-minute conversation about where a semicolon goes! There’s no two ways about that—you just have to be ready for that kind of work. That kind of rigor gives you a grip on the text and a discipline for the work and I find it really good preparation.
CST: Do you give that script to the actors?
JR: I do. It’s a strategy to make sure all the actors are using the same version of the text. But, more so, it’s a really detailed way to prep. I tend to work to find the scene from the text on the page. Some directors might go, “I think this scene is about this, let’s get the scene to work like that.” I’m more interested in going, “What’s on the page? How does it sound? What are the actors doing? How can we use the process of working on the scene to find out what the scene is?” And you need a really, really good grip on the text in order to do that.
CST: You have said before that you approach Shakespeare’s work as if it’s a new play. What did you mean by that exactly?
JR: That’s a good way of thinking about it, because for me it’s not a dissimilar process. I run a theater that’s dedicated to the production of new plays. In a successful rehearsal process, you discover the play in the room. It is fascinating to watch the play reveal itself. And I find it’s not dissimilar to working on a classical text, actually, where you’re burrowing through the play, in order to try to infer what the playwright intended. That doesn’t mean you’re wholly successful, but you say, “Okay, well, I think this is the scene Shakespeare was trying to write, this is the shape of it, this is what it does, and this is what these people are doing to each other within it.” And when you have a good sense of the shape, then you have a map of the play, and you can sit back and have a more profound sense of the whole.
Then, I’ll make lists: I’ll go through, for example, all colors as they appear in the play, or look at all adverbs, or I might go through and trace bits of imagery through the play. “There’s a rose here. Where does the rose reappear?” You might go through and look at metaphor, just to try and get at a central understanding of the language of the play.
Learn more in an interview with Scenic and Costume Designer Lucy Osborne.