Twelfth Night – Viola

VIOLA
A lady, sir, though it was said she much resembled
me, was yet of many accounted beautiful: but,
though I could not with such estimable wonder
overfar believe that, yet thus far I will boldly
publish her; she bore a mind that envy could not but
call fair. She is drowned already, sir, with salt
water, though I seem to drown her remembrance again with more.

I think for many the character of Viola, who becomes Cesario, puts Twelfth Night into the realm of fantasy as much as the fairies do for Midsummer.  Not for me.  Sure, it is far-fetched for a well-bred young lady to dress like a boy and convince everyone around her that she is, basically, her brother… but I feel Shakespeare takes care of the reasons for not suspending disbelief.  Yes, she’s a young gentlewoman – but since their father died (some four years ago, perhaps?) she and her twin brother have been much on their own.  (There’s a fan-fiction there.)  She knows him better than she knows anyone else.  And, since they’ve been alone together since the age of thirteen, she will have had a close view of his process of learning to become a man.  Additionally, there’s never a mention of their mother, so the presumption can be that she’s been gone for a long time, and that for a while before he died their father was raising them alone; she’s had masculine companionship all her life.  If you really wanted to go fan-ficty and conjecture, it’s not so far-fetched that her father and brother have taught her things, like the basics of fencing, which no girl should know.  It’s obvious she’s intelligent, and it’s believable she has had the closest thing to firsthand experience of boyhood a girl can have; she would know how to make excellent use of all of that.  Plus, she says that she is in a way keeping her brother alive by becoming his image –

VIOLA
He named Sebastian: I my brother know
Yet living in my glass; even such and so
In favour was my brother, and he went
Still in this fashion, colour, ornament,
For him I imitate: O, if it prove,
Tempests are kind and salt waves fresh in love.

And while such a thing may never have happened, I don’t think it’s my steady diet of fantasies and gothics that make the whole charade a reasonable response for her situation.  The Trevor Nunn film pads the story, making the threat to her bigger and darker, but I don’t think it’s necessary.  I know a bit about how impossible would be the position of a, say, seventeen-year old girl, completely alone in a strange land with only the clothes and possessions salvaged from a sinking ship and what money she had on her.

Viola is an outsider in Illyria. She is of Messaline, and was washed ashore here in this place of lovelorn dukes and weeds-draped ladies. Also, she must keep herself separate; if anyone comes too close, they’ll discover her disguise, and the proverbial jig will be up. And she is alone in the world now, as far as she knows, her family all gone, her life a blank slate before her. This makes her the ideal character to observe and comment on the antics and oddities of the others; she is the audience stand-in for the play. Viola is, at the denouement, the only one who knows what’s going on. Sebastian – depending, as always, on how it’s played – really believes this is some male cousin or other sprig of the family tree: he knows his sister is dead, knows it, and therefore this can’t be she. But Viola knows all – and her performance should reflect that.

I found a nice little examination of the names used in the play (somewhere): the viola, for example, is also a musical instrument with a deeper tone than a violin, so perhaps our Viola has (or affects) a lower voice than other girls.


BBC (1980): Felicity Kendal‘s Viola is composed and calm, much like the rest of the production.  She does not begin shaken by grief, and continues largely unperturbed by circumstances.  She loves Orsino, and gazes longingly, and seems to quietly enjoy thinking about him while quietly sorrowing that she cannot at the moment have him.  She does not love Olivia, and shows some frustration there at not being able to shake her off; it is only toward the end that any passion breaks through, when Orsino announces he will kill Cesario – passion to allow her beloved to do whatever he thinks he needs to do to ease his heart.  Which is not to say it isn’t a lovely performance – it is; Felicity Kendal isn’t speaking lines, she’s speaking her character’s thoughts, inhabiting her “poor monster”, softly rueful there.  This Cesario is a young lad, although a bit feminine possibly convincing to someone who doesn’t look at “him” and say “oh, look, it’s Felicity Kendal”.  She does something the others don’t, standing like a boy with feet apart and hands behind back, and putting a boot up on Olivia’s bench and leaning on that knee to address the lady – not like a woman pretending to be a girl pretending to be a boy, but naturally and unaffectedly, as she delivers her lines.  Naturalistic body language.

The costume of the period helps Viola in this masquerade – it’s a very clever period to set 12th in.  The flowing hair and swags of lace and big swaggering boots are both feminine enough (to modern eyes) and ostentatious enough that it can all be hidden behind.  And all of that – the big droopy feather on the hat and the swashbuckling sword on the hip (man, what a great period for costume) – is the first thing someone is going to be seeing.  It’s wonderful camouflage.

This Viola is a cool-headed, logical, calm girl, with a great sense of humor.  She took on the role of Cesario for self-preservation, and is finding herself to be quite enjoying it, and being amused by a great deal of what goes on.

She, Michael Thomas as her brother, and the wardrobe and makeup departments (but especially she) did a good enough job that upon one of Sebastian’s entrances I was near-sightedly startled when he spoke that it wasn’t Felicity.  That’s the only time that’s happened.  Same long, feathered hair – Cavalier style; same clothes, of course; but most of all they coordinated on manner of walking and carriage, and that made what would have been a total lack of resemblance (in face, voice – and height) much, much less ridiculous.  She put on Cesario like a second skin, and played a relaxed, sharp young lad with perfect ease.  There were things I missed – but overall I loved her Viola.


Trevor Nunn (1996): Imogen Stubbs – cut hair, bound breasts; she has a deeper voice, and husky, so passes as a boy well in that area.  And she’s the only Viola among the versions I watched who pasted on a mustache.  I don’t remember any incidents with it, which, if that memory is accurate, is remarkable: a director passing up the easy laugh.  Good on him.

This is also the only Viola (almost) who follows up on “for I can sing And speak to him in many sorts of music” – we meet Cesario playing Orsino’s piano.

This Viola is bold – she makes the leap of cutting off all that hair.  I know from experience that this is a huge move, and there’s no going back, not quickly.  It’s smart – when men’s fashion is short hair, it would be dangerous to try to hide long hair – and in the setting of this production especially it’s a big deal.  She is physical: she gamely makes an attempt in a fencing salle (which of course gave Trevor Nunn the opportunity to have the fencing master put a hand squarely on her breast), and practices spitting and other such masculine arts.  She plays pool with Orsino (very well), and cards – it’s very much an Edwardian sort of man’s world here, and this Viola fits in as well as could be expected.


No image is available as pre-Cesario Helen Hunt in L@LC

L@LC (1998): Helen Hunt – wonderful.  I have the suspicion that it’s not fashionable to love Helen Hunt, but when have I ever cared about that?  I loved her in this.  It’s a totally different animal from the Trevor Nunn, this play, a straight-forward on-stage production rather than a full cinematic event.  Helen Hunt has lovely comic timing, and perfect reactions – broad, but appropriate for the stage.  She pulled off a very good impersonation of a young man or teenager, slightly older than many of the Cesarios appear to be – an attractive woman who can be an attractive boy.  The costume and hair made it almost perfect: hair in a sleek ponytail, as is Sebastian’s of course, and a white suit just like his (of course).  The resemblance was the best here,   Great reactions, great comic timing – all the right notes perhaps slightly overplayed for the stage, and sometimes played to the audience.  Viola here is a woman in transition, trying to get her feet under her, and suddenly set upon by love from two angles – here, the everywoman thrown into a thoroughly extraordinary situation.  A viola-like voice, low for a woman, and just right for a young man: perfect.  I still want to see the rest.  Stupid PBS.


HVSF (2008): Katie Hartke – wonderful.  She pulls off her impersonation nicely (though there’s not so much of a resemblance to Sebastian) – could be a young boy, young enough to make it squicky – but mature for “his” age.  Her hair gathered under her hat.  She’s on edge, emotional – as a woman would be in her place.  There is a wonderful immediacy to this performance: this Viola is absolutely present in the moment, every moment, sharply aware and intent on each line, each scene. She has terrific comic timing, and a great capacity to make the whole silly storyline perfectly believable.


ATV British TV (1969): Joan Plowright – Not immensely convincing as a girl playing a boy.  It was, in a way, a nice choice to have her witness the end of Orsino’s first scene (“If music be the food”, etc.) and decide she will serve him.  It explains the decision nicely- because it is a drastic decision … but then it weakens the scene.  She leaves the scene with backward glances (except for the hair, he’s handsome, nice legs, and nice voice).  She is devoid of feeling for much of it, very still, with many soulful upward gazes – not the passion required for some scenes.  She also plays Sebastian, with a hint of facial hair – which solves the mistaken identity casting problem, but …


Branagh (1988): Frances Barber is sweet, smart, good as a fifteen-year-old boy; lovely emotion.  She is a relief in a mean-spirited production – and it’s a horrible shame: if the whole thing had lived up to her, it would be one of my favorite versions instead of my far and away least favorite.


Tim Supple (2003): Parminder Nagra – I should watch this again before saying much, but I’d rather not see this again … This Viola was solemn and afraid. She cut her hair and bound her breasts, and fell in love with Chiwetel Ejiofor. This Orsino may have been a scary fellow, but who could blame her? Especially after the hot tub scene…


Lucie Höflich played Viola in a German version...

Image via Wikipedia

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