“Make no compare between that love a woman can bear me and that I owe Olivia.” Orsino claims women lack the “retention” to love men as men love women. For me, the real question posed by The Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of Twelfth Night is whether male actors have the “retention” to play female characters. I seized the chance to experience Twelfth Night performed traditionally: an all-male cast with historically accurate costume and makeup. I was admittedly skeptical, though, of the prospect of watching men play women. How could I immerse myself in the plight of Viola (a young woman cross dressing as a man) when I’d be watching a man… acting as a woman… pretending to be a man?
As I watched these men (Samuel Barnett, Mark Rylance, and Paul Chahidi) glide across the stage with heavy gowns and heavier rouge, I was shocked at how easily I forgot that the actors I watched were, in fact, men. These actors were wholly women in my eyes, beyond costuming and gesture. Barnett as a woman forced to remain in cross dressing disguise before her unrequited love, I was shocked to discover, moved me to compassion and sympathy for Viola. I could feel her yearning for Orsino’s approval and affection, and empathized with her desperation to both protect her identity and make Orsino see her without revealing herself. I couldn’t believe that I actually found myself relating to his Viola as she experienced the sour stagnancy of unrequited love, but with Viola I sighed, despaired, and travelled into my own familiar instances of clandestine emotions.
When I took my seat at the opening of Twelfth Night, I couldn’t fathom that a man would be able to persuade me that he was in fact a young woman. I’ve never been so pleased to be surprised, as the cast of Twelfth Night proves that love isn’t a matter of gender, but a moving of the spirit.