What You Will

Serendipitously, the year has started well for procrastinators.  It was surely reasonable to continue the festive revelries throughout the twelve days of Christmas.  That would take us to Twelfth Night on Friday.  Time to take the Xmas cards down.  Bit of a relief really.  As we say in these parts, back to auld claes an’ purritch.  Yet the weekend followed so really the New Year only starts proper, with the resolutions kicking in, on Monday January 8th.

Talking of Twelfth Night, I saw a production of the Shakespeare play last time I was in Auckland.  Orsino, Duke of Illyria, says

If music be the food of love, play on,

Give me excess of it that, surfeiting,

The appetite may sicken and so die.

That strain again, it had a dying fall.

O, it came o’er my ear like the sweet sound

That breathes upon a bank of violets,

Stealing and giving odour.  Enough, no more,

‘Tis not so sweet now as it was before.    

Shakespeare probably wrote Twelfth Night in 1601. That bank of violets is reminiscent of a play he wrote in 1596 or 1597, The Merchant of Venice.  I think music must have spoken to Shakespeare.  Lorenzo says to Jessica

How sweet the moonlight sleeps upon this bank!

Here will we sit, and let the sounds of music

Creep in our ears.  Soft stillness and the night

Become the touches of sweet harmony. 

Ralph Vaughan Williams famously set these words in his Serenade to Music for 16 solo voices and orchestra.  I heard it at a London Prom which I made a point of going to in 2008.  It was the 50th anniversary of the death of RVW.  The BBC Symphony Orchestra was conducted by Sir Andrew Davis.  It was a very remarkable concert.  In addition to the Serenade, they played the Tallis Fantasia, Job – a Masque for Dancing, and the 9th Symphony, a remarkable feat for the performers, not least the orchestra’s leader Stephen Bryant who had significant solo passages to play throughout the evening.  RVW’s music has a remarkable, unique, spiritual quality which, live in concert, exerts an extraordinary effect upon the audience.  The Serenade to Music’s premiere was also given in the Royal Albert Hall, on 5th October 1938, at a gala concert to celebrate Sir Henry Wood’s Golden Jubilee.  Rachmaninoff played his 2nd piano concerto in the first half of that concert, and remained to hear the Serenade.  He sent a note round to RVW saying how much he had enjoyed his music.

But to return to Twelfth Night, a precis of the plot would I think be reminiscent of the brief digest you get from the Radio 3 announcer anchoring an opera beamed in from the New York Met:

A shipwrecked girl (Viola), disguised as a boy (Cesario), serves a young Duke (Orsino) and undertakes to act as go-between, representing him as suitor to a noble lady (Olivia) who proceeds to fall in love with her but mistakenly marries her twin brother (Sebastian).

A short multi-choice examination will follow.

In the Auckland performance, it was all the more confusing, and indeed disconcerting, because the play, as it would have been in Shakespeare’s Globe, was performed by an all-male cast.  I was especially struck by the roistering Sir Toby Belch’s rebuke of Olivia’s stuck-up and prissy steward Malvolio:

Art any more than a steward?  Dost thou think because thou art virtuous there shall be no more cakes and ale?

There is a wonderful ambiguity about these lines.  Sir Toby is berating Malvolio and saying, “Don’t imagine we are going to change our behaviour just because you are here.”  But he’s also making the wider point.  Revelry and virtue are not incompatible bed fellows.

It is sometimes said that there is no textual reason why this play should be called “Twelfth Night”.  Indeed, its subtitle, Or What You Will suggests as much.  If he’d been writing today, Shakespeare might have called it “Whatever”.  But maybe the cakes and ale line (Somerset Maugham borrowed it as a title) gives a certain relevance to January 5th.  I’m having a Malvolio January.  No ale.  I did the same last January so I can’t say I’m wary of the unknown.  It’s a mind game really.  On this occasion I’m concurrently reading The 28 Day Alcohol-Free Challenge by Andy Ramage and Ruari Fairbairns (Bluebird, 2017).  Ramage and Fairbairns warn of the danger of caving in at the first big social occasion.  I see from my diary that on January 12th I’m going to an ex-work “Do” which starts in a rather posh whisky-gin outlet in Perthshire, with a gin tasting session.  There’s an analogy nagging at the back of my mind: dragging along my Malvolio persona – it’s a bit like taking a peashooter to a gunfight at the OK Corral.  Gin has rather taken off in Scotland.  All the distilleries have become interested in the juniper berry.  I’ve been rehearsing my tactics for the gin night.  “Could I just have the Fever Tree tonic please?  I’m on the 28 Day Alcohol-Free Challenge.”  To which Sir Toby Belch might reasonably reply, “Well what the hell are you doing here?”  Or, in other words, “Dost thou think because thou art virtuous…”  Maybe I’ll just take the car.  Or I can buy my way out of trouble by purchasing a bottle of very expensive Scottish gin for February.  Whatever.

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