by Mahira Kakkar
I’m sitting on the train blogging and listening to Amy Goodman on "Democracy Now" as I write. I’m trying to draw a parallel but there is none. There is no real co-ordinate that I could draw between my activism and this play, Twelfth Night. Except one. I believe in staying alert and aware of one’s surroundings. I think it’s an issue of survival. And at the risk of sounding glib, I think this is what helps the characters in Twelfth Night move forward.
The stage we’re on at Westport Country Playhouse is a rake - it’s angled forward. This automatically forces us to engage our core. So this engaging is what interests me.
And while people engage with their surroundings and other people in various ways - protests, blogs, art...the characters in Shakespeare’s play engage through words and argument. By argument, I don’t mean arguing - I mean positing something and then making your case for it. I think Viola and Olivia and Orsino all fall in love with each other because of the way they talk and use language. I imagine it almost as language carving space and time - twisting the mesh of it to create an opportunity for an event to happen. As a specific example, Olivia and Viola have a scene where they are playing tennis. Not literally, but they are lobbying each other’s words back and forth all the time. They’re very good at this. It is the first time they meet and they are talking about love - Orsino’s love and suddenly before they know it, they are bantering and Olivia is falling in love.
I used to watch the show “Californication” and a line in it resonates for me: “Talking leads to f*&^%$g.” These are a people for whom talking and language is sexy. They appreciate wit and humor – Olivia, even in the midst of her deep sadness keeps a fool to entertain her and lift her spirits. While in rehearsal, Mark would caution me not to get too carried away with the language - not to go too fast in my excitement and joy of playing these word games because it might make the word play inaccessible to a modern audience unfamiliar with Shakespeare’s use of language. We also talked about Viola falling in love with Olivia - the lady playing my Olivia, Susan Kelechi Watson, is a divine, generous actress. And has a HUGE sense of fun - playing with her on stage I would sometimes forget that Viola has to keep Olivia at bay and not fall in love with her spirit. I do believe that Viola wishes she could give Olivia what she wants, but is unable to do so.
Speaking of being unable - the cannot instead of the will not - which is something our dramaturge Milla often talked about, I would like to talk about faith. And love as faith.
Echoes of this resonate throughout the play. Orsino talks about his love as religion and
Viola repeats this to Olivia who, perhaps sick of the severity of religion, being immersed in mourning and helped by a strict, moral steward, asks her to cast this aside and speak in her own words. Then, Olivia and Viola start engaging because of Viola’s language. Her own language used after the mask of Orsino has been cast aside. And Olivia finds herself falling in love with this eloquent young boy. Viola and Orsino are kindred spirits in a way because they both have a vision of love as faith, and keeping the faith even when things are not going their way.
Mark would also caution me not to get so lost in the passion and fire of this faith, that I lost the lightness. Or to put it another way, he would say think of keeping the faith as being hopeful as well.
Rehearsals were quite a workout. Since we were trying to work things out together, the staging, mood and intent of various scenes changed multiple times. We went from the play being very dark - at the end all the couples come together but there is so much left unresolved that you don’t know how and if the couples are going to make it - (Olivia has actually fallen in love with Viola - will she be able to love Sebastian? Will Sebastian be able to live up to her expectations? How will Orsino and Viola work things out?) to more resolution. The director talked a lot about Malvolio and his justifiable desire for revenge, but he cautioned that in Shakespeare’s time revenge plays were tragedies and plays about love were comedies. He also talked about vibrancy, how all these characters were full to the brim with life and feeling and thoughts. He would often talk about being in a constant state of readiness - ready to laugh, cry or fall in love in an instant, and how as actors we should be wary of planting ourselves in scenes.
Every day when I’m getting ready to go on stage I have to remind myself of this. I consciously try to move my weight to the balls of my feet in an effort to stay alert, light, and present. My colleagues backstage are used to me dancing, jumping, picking up my feet like a trotting horse. To anybody unused to what we do, it would seem like strange behavior. But what we do is strange and wonderful and alive making. I would not change it for the world.