One of Shakespeare’s most hilarious and heartbreaking tales of unrequited love, the RSC’s Twelfth Night is not only starring a phenomenal cast but is directed by Christopher Luscombe, who directed the outstanding production of Love’s Labour’s Lost and Much Ado About Nothing in 2014 and 2016.
Christopher has had a career at the RSC as both an actor and a director, and Twelfth Night is a play he has always wanted to direct. “It’s such a favourite play of mine and being able to direct it at the RSC with all the resources is a really great opportunity,” he said. Deciding to set the production in the Victorian era, he found that so many aspects of the play chimed with the 1890s. “I did a lot of reading and went to a lot of houses from that period, we found very specific places to base the design off,” Christopher added.
“I was in Twelfth Night at school and my youth theatre, I feel like I’ve lived it so many times and it is wonderful when you get the chance to direct it as you can control the whole thing,” he said. “Having come across the Victorian period which seemed to fit, and working with composers and designers was a huge part of the pleasure of doing it as you get to really create stuff with these expert people.”
He wanted to set it in the Victorian era because there is a lot in the play about bereavement and loss, and it relates to a time when we know people were obsessed by mourning. “Of course Queen Victoria was in mourning for Albert and that sort of coloured the whole of that century,” he said. “I’m a great believer in putting Shakespeare comedy in a particular timeframe and I just think it really helps the actors when they know how they relate to each other where they belong in social hierarchy,” he said.
Christopher was also keen to put the play in a time that was very romantic. “There was a lot of tremendously overt declarations of love and it’s all very poetic. There is a lot of poetry in the play and I thought that chimed with the period as all the poetry, literature and art was based on this romantic ideal.”
There is also a lot of interesting discussion about gender and unrequited love for people of the ‘wrong’ sex in the play, Christopher expressed: “I thought that would only really work where people were conscious of that kind of agony as they were constrained by rules and regulations.” Whilst it is still an issue in today’s society, it used to be illegal in England and this is reflected in the time period of the play. “I think it’s quite useful for the audience because we have this older man who is in love with the young man and he gets arrested, as soon as the police come on the audience will make that connection,” he said.
The play is set after a shipwreck in the Adriatic Sea, Sebastian and Viola, twin brother and sister are separated and washed up on the shores of Illyria. Viola dresses as a boy to seek employment from Count Orsino but falls in love with him, not being able to tell him because she is dressed up as a boy. Things then become even more complicated when Olivia falls in love with Cesario without realising, he is a girl.
With the numerous love triangles and misunderstanding of identity in the play, I asked Christopher how he would maintain the clarity of the play. He explained: “I think it’s a lot to do with the handling of the language and getting the actors to really be completely clear about what they’re saying and why they’re saying it, and the text does all the work for you if you serve it up right.”
Christopher expressed that he believes this production of Twelfth Night will be unique because of the combination of people working on it. “I try to avoid doing anything different for the sake of being different,” he said. “You do what feels true to you at the time, you can’t really do it to make a splash, you just have to be true to the text.”
The RSC’s Twelfth Night is on from the 2 Nov – 24 Feb, tickets and information can be found here.