The Wind in the Willows is a hell of a show if you cross-cast it, apparently. I was told this weekend that switching genders around in that play (whichever version you’re using) does all sorts of intriguing things to the characterisation. Mole becomes a fussy houseproud woman without a family to clean up after, who is dazzled by a fast-talking twentysomething who dresses in vaguely military jackets and keeps a pistol wrapped in oilskin cloth in the bottom of her boat. Toad becomes a hard-drinking party girl who’s never going to inherit the estate anyway, so why shouldn’t she drive too fast, especially when everyone expects her to be a terrible driver – if you have a “life interest” in the Hall, why shouldn’t a girl try to make that life interesting? And what is Badger doing living out in the middle of the wood, how do they just stumble across her house when they get lost, and why does everyone listen to her when she starts laying down the law? As so often with a clever theatrical setting of a familiar text, rearranging some details of the context points in unexpected directions, fracturing the connections which usually make sense of the work and soldering together new ones.
It’s an effect we’re more used to in Shakespeare, where quirks of theatre history, Victorian historiography and the shape of the Shakespeare industry mean that plays are continually set and reset in unusual contexts. Lear in space, Comedy of Errors in South London, Romeo and Juliet in a futuristic Los Angeles, and so on. Whilst I was looking through some old notes, I came across this quick sketch for a setting I scribbled for an imaginary film of Twelfth Night in prohibition New York. I think I wrote it about ten years ago…
Twelfth and Stuyvesant
(or “whaddya you want for nuthin’?”)
Orsino’s apartment, low lights. The room is cluttered with empty glasses, the furniture pushed back to make a dance floor, and we can just hear the last guests disappearing into the elevator down the corridor. A slow wailing blues plays, by someone like Jelly-Roll Morton or Sidney Bechet. Orsino enters, in a dinner jacket, his bowtie loose around his neck, and, finding a clean glass, pours himself a drink, starting to conduct vaguely with his free hand. He turns and begins with a conscious grandiosity
If music be the food of love, play on…
At “that strain again”, he crosses to the gramophone, picks up the needle, and reruns a section, then repeats through the following lines, repeating a smaller and smaller sequence of notes until “enough, no more”. In this adumbration we see his rhetorical gestures, his obsession and his quick relinquishment that will all affect what is to come. Opening the French windows, he sees the dawn beginning to rise. What he may also dimly be able to see is the straggling row of boats appearing at the edge of the harbour.
As Viola and the captain come into mooring, they are assailed by the sound of crowds of stevedores and new arrivals – various languages, no apparent order, leading to Viola’s question “What country is this, friend?” She is also dressed for a party, which was ended when the ship sank, her disarray a slant on Orsino’s insouciant derangement. A silk dress, most of her makeup washed off, short hair, a thirties gamine, and from behind, with the captain’s jacket thrown over her shoulders you might mistake her for a boy anyway. In a dinner jacket, she’s the epitome of the age.
But in the dressing scene we see her strip off that silk dress – not elegantly, rustling to the floor, but like someone peeling off a damp salty silk dress which is sticking to them, and notice the corsetry which is keeping her that shape. (Not lacy popping-out corsetry intended to be seen, but functional, precise, smooth planes and only hinting at movement, like the more fluid kind of Art Deco building – of which there will be plenty to compare it with!) This will remain on her, underneath her boy’s clothes. (Better check this is not anachronistic, and what they actually wore. Oh dear, this all sounded a lot less prurient when I had the idea…)
After they move into the city, the sea will remain important, another glimpse of Barber’s “Green World”, the sun coming up from it, and going down into it. Foghorns and mist, and only to be seen when one is high up. In Orsino’s self-absorbed fury he can try to use it for his own metaphorical purposes, having climbed above the rooms of the Orchard Club – “Their love may be called appetite, but mine is all as hungry as the sea and can digest as much”, but he cannot see the look of horror which comes into Cesario’s face at this awful gesture.
The dawn is also rising elsewhere, on another pair in evening dress. In a low, cold, blue light, with no shadow or nuance, Toby Belch and Andrew Aguecheek are sitting in the lobby of the Towers, passing a bottle between them, in violation of the law and in plain sight of anyone who comes through, or even passes the doors. The staff are beginning to move around them, and Maria’s tries to hustle them away from general sight – “Quaffing and drinking will undo you!” She is full of bustle, and efficient in a respectable black dress, distinguished as one of the household, unlike the uniformed flunkeys around her. Aguecheek is impeccably dressed even at this hour, a New England Brahmin, and much good may it do him.
As the doorman watches Maria move them into the lift, Feste walks past him in a shabby jacket and too-large trousers. This, then, is the Fool, and he moves like an early film of a man doing a conjuring trick, flickering and shrugging to the syncopation of an inaudible piano. (Think Chaplin and Brecht, but not that cliched.) He might even have some item of eveningwear himself, and no-one can get a grip on him – a wise man playing a simple man playing a rich man playing a poor man? An artiste’s impression of the Depression man. He slips past and into the front office, which is off to the side, away from the focus of the lobby, a pair of magnificent double doors; ornate, deco and imposing, these are a twin set of elevators, which can be used to travel up to the empty boardroom where Olivia’s father’s portrait still hangs over the long table, higher to the family apartments, or down to the boiler room, in whose wire meshes and darkness Malvolio will be imprisoned (white coats hang outside on the wall for the janitors, to be gleefully donned by those visiting him.) L[ennard]&L[uckhurst]’s “strong vertical axis” is to be exploited here, and will come into its own during the letter scene; the farcical possibilities of two elevators in parallel will require that all the cast know how to perform a traffic-light fire drill.
Malvolio himself was the right-hand man of Olivia’s father, and affects an old-fashioned starched collar and tie. After inspecting the clerks and ledgers, he ascends to the boardroom to walk up and down in the silence, and finds Feste sitting in the chairman’s place, fat cigar in his mouth, battered (top or bowler) hat on, addressing the portrait of Olivia’s dead father. The first confrontation between these two relicts of the previous age occurs right here, with Olivia’s catechism teetering between sacrilege and cross-talk. Left to her Fool, Olivia displays one of the tracts which are distributed to the clerks with their wages, warning of the evils of drink and gaming in the big city. Her cousin does the soft-shoe shuffle along the corridor behind, as she turns to Feste with wide-eyed faux innocence and asks “What’s a drunk man like, Fool?”
The Orchard Club, the Big Apple’s favourite nightspot. No sloppy ineffectual genre shots of “bright young things” having a crazy time – keep the brightness at the edge of the vision; through doors, below windows and past hallways. The fact that everyone is either in evening wear or wide suits means most of them look vaguely gangsterish – ample opportunities for the Capitano/Cavaliero passages of Toby and Sebastian.
It’s not particularly radical stuff, but I remember enjoying trying to fit the characters into the conceit, and work out what would no longer make sense and what would provide new potential and unexpected congruence with the lines. It comes out much more as a play about inheritance and obligation, I think, and both mingled excitement and threat of the urban (American) offer to reinvent or perform yourself.
Emma Smith and Genevieve Love have both written fascinatingly on the possibilities of a “fantasy performance criticism”, which does not investigate past productions but instead projects “from the never-was to the never-will-be”, offering “settings of desire” in place of the historical facts. This strategy seeks to push against the dominance of Shakespeare in the production history of Early Modern drama across the centuries, and whilst I sometimes worry this would foreclose the oddities of historical investigation, it’s an exciting critical and creative challenge. Why shouldn’t we examine the implications of impossible settings, to see what new connections they set up and where they short-circuit old assumptions?
We might indulge in fantasy casting, assigning performers to roles to see what resonances are produced, or even cast fictional characters themselves. (Harriet Vane as Olivia? Fitzwilliam Darcy as Benedick? In what directions would that prise and shift the drama?) So I’d like to invite all of you to send me any sketches of settings – Shakespearean or otherwise. Use my rather uninventive effort from ten years ago as a jumping-off point to produce more radical “settings of desire” which shed new light on the texts we’re used to. I’d love to read your accounts of time period, casting, context, costumes – as short as a sentence or longer than this article. Send me some ideas and I’ll post them here, to focus eccentric and intriguing new perspectives on Shakespeare and other dramatists.