Mr. and Mrs.Buce have finished their much-disrupted and deferred readaloud of Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, still in the company of the incomparable Michael Pennington and his unmatchable director's commentary. Every page of it was worthwhile, and I'm looking forward to giving the same kind of careful attention to Pennington's two other commentaries (Hamlet and Midsummer Night's Dream, respectively). For all that, I end as I began, somewhat unsold on Twelfth Night, still convinced that it will never be my favorite among the comedies.
The surface reasons ought to be clear enough. I'd sign on with W.H.Auden that it is an "unpleasant" play, though not, of course, nearly as "unpleasant" as the unpleasant plays to come--All's Well that Ends Well, Measure for Measure, Troilus and Cressida. In any event, it just doesn't seem to have the liberating grace that you--I--find in Midsummer Night's Dream, or As You Like It, or even (personal choice) Much Ado about Nothing.
The more intriguing question is why, given its unpleasantness, does it retain in such high esteem among Shakespeare fans. I can survey some possible reasons. One: the core love story, but let's be clear here: the core love story is not Orsino and Viola, nor Olivia and Sebastian. No: the core love story is the brotherly (and sisterly) love between Viola and Sebastian, set forth with a delicacy and precision that is probably unmatched anyplace else in the canon. Or more precisely--Viola herself. She doesn't dominate the story the way Rosalind dominates As You Like It. But with her own dignity and sensibility, she provides a quiet center to he piece such as not even Rosalind can achieve.
On a somewhat larger scale--one thing I liked about the somewhat even Trevor Nunn film version is that he got the larger structure right. Specifically, he gave you the sense that all this could go dreadfully wrong. So though a comedy, it remained a comedy with an urgent and insistent buzz just below the surface, enough to keep even the most inattentive observer pinned to the stage.
Turned inside out: this play must be the very devil to direct. The Nunn movie was good but imperfect (what did Ben Kingsley think he was up to here?). I haven't seen but two or three others, none of which really sticks in my mind. I can only wish I had seen Pennington's own Chicago production of which he seems just a bit proud, thank you. But that's true of a lot of Shakespeare: once you get to know it, the performance in your mind is better than any you are going to see on stage. Maybe I'll jsut have to go back to Twelfth Night informed by Pennington, and make it just as good as it really can be.