Shakespeare wrote Twelfth Night in 1601 or 1602 as light entertainment at the close of the Christmas season, and the play has delivered plenty of fun through the years, but it certainly challenges its audiences to keep track of its convoluted plot. It’s all about love, perception, deception and mistaken identity. Full enjoyment requires a bit of concentration.
Why, then, do some modern theater directors introduce yet another barrier to audience comprehension? The other day, Betsy and I attended a production of this classic comedy, staged by a respected professional company, but its director had chosen to set the production in an imaginary Mediterranean country in the 1950s and arrange the stage as a sunny poolside patio environment with chaise lounges and cabanas. Why? If the point was to make the story more relevant to contemporary times, no thanks. Shakespeare’s excellent material is timeless. Its relevance is clear today, and it certainly doesn’t need updating.
I suspect ego plays a role. Some directors find it hard to resist the temptation to put one’s own identity on a production by revising it to bring it into today’s realm. This might not be the case for this Twelfth Night production, but to me, an attempt to modernize it in this ineffective way nevertheless insults both its esteemed author and the intelligence of its audience.
Sometimes modernizing a production works out well. Theater and film history offers a long list of such efforts, and some stand out: West Side Story, based on Romeo and Juliet; My Fair Lady, drawn from Pygmalion; Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead, taken from Hamlet; Hook, based on Peter Pan; The Wiz, which retells The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and sets it in Harlem in the 1970s, all examples of successful updating of timeless material.
If you insist on changing such timeless material, tread carefully. Respect for the writer and your audience make a good first step.