Frock Flicks note: This is a guest post by our friend Joel Reid. He’s trained in theater design and has worked in that capacity plus commissioned work for Civil War, Revolutionary War, Renaissance Faire, and SCA re-enactors. He is an unapologetic theater and period drama nerd. Find him on Instagram or search for “Joel Reid Jr.” on Facebook.
With the recent announcement that The Globe will be resuming its performance schedule come summer 2021, I thought I had best get a wiggle on and crank out this review of the filmed stage production of William Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night produced by The Globe Theater. The production was directed by Tim Carroll and the costumes were designed by the estimable Jenny Tiramani, who is a goddess to anyone who has done Elizabethan, Jacobean, and English Civil War clothing recreation, for the breadth and detail of her scholarship into extant examples of clothing from these eras.
The production had an original run in 2003, which was then revived when they “got the band back together” to reprise the production in 2013. The original 2003 production did a limited U.S. tour which I had the good fortune to see in person, so I have the benefit of having seen both the live and filmed versions to compare. Largely, they are indistinguishable from each other, with the exception that the tour utilized a traveling set that recreated the play-space at Blackfriars (indoor theater space of Shakespeare’s time) instead of the larger-scale Globe setting, which was harder to recreate in the variety of theaters they would be presenting the production in on the tour … but that’s a different rabbit hole for a different review.
Now, for the purposes of this review for Frock Flicks, I should get a few basic facts out of the way: I am an unapologetic theater nerd, I went to college (CMU) majoring in Theater Design with a focus on Costume Design and a minor in Creative Writing, so there is going to be A LOT of theater-nerding going on up in this review, buckle up.
The distinctions between “theater” and “life” and “costume” and “clothes” will be very important for the bulk of this discussion, so please hold your questions until the end when I will happily address them. I can be a bit of a salty-old-queen, but I will try to avoid peppering my commentary with too much purple-prose so as to remain safely readable for younger audiences without having to explain any too too florid metaphors.
Those bits of housekeeping out of the way, let’s dive in to this delightful treat, the 2013 filmed revival of the 2003 Globe production of William Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. First we should, I think, list the ways in which a period film normally fails the Frock Flicks Litmus Tests for accuracy, what are the chief mistakes regularly made that frost our cookies to no end?
- Improperly worn corsets/incorrect period corsets
- No shifts under corsets
- Hair undone/modern hairstyles paired with period clothing
- Clothing worn without proper under layers
- Visible zippers/snaps/metal grommets
- Clothing from disparate periods mixed together in the same production
- Modern makeup styles worn with period clothing
- Lack of appropriate head wear/accessories
- Obvious lack of practice/rehearsal, moving naturally in period clothing so they read like foreign costumes to the wearer
Spoiler alert #1, given that the costumes were designed and construction supervised by Ms. Tiramani, with the adept assistance of Mr. Luca Costigliolo (whom some of you will recognize as the occasional assistant to Ruth Goodman on sewing projects in the various “Historical-Period: Farm” series she was a presenter in for BBC), this production is guilty of NONE of the usual pitfalls and foibles that trip up a period production and earn it the ire of Frock Flicks in large or small measure.
As an amusing side note of how interconnected the worlds of period theater and film and television can be … Ruth Goodman was an advisor on the set of Shakespeare in Love (1998), where we see the hypothetical seeds of Twelfth Night planted, she was a presenter in Tudor Monastery Farm (2013), and Tales From Green Valley (2005) on BBC which depict farm life at the beginning and end of the period of Shakespeare’s life, and she was also an advisor for The Globe Theater. Look her up if you’ve not yet had the delight of experiencing the treasure that Ruth Goodman is, you won’t be disappointed. Back to the review…
Spoiler Alert #2, for as much as The Globe put full effort into its scholarship and historical accuracy for this production of Twelfth Night, I’m here to say in this review: I think they got it wrong none the less, despite a wealth of good intent and solid scholarship.
(Insert melodramatic stage gasp here.)
Now that you’ve gasped and clutched your pearls in horror that I’ve impugned the reputation of The Globe and Ms. Tiramani, calm yourself. Take a sip of tea and keep reading…
I accept that the critique I am about to level is a bit of history-nerd hairsplitting, but I think it’s a discussion worth having if true “historical accuracy” is paramount, so lets to it. First, let me give a brief overview of the array of costuming we are treated to within this production. Right off the mark, you’ll notice that, with minor exception, the bulk of the pieces worn on stage are black/white/grey, which creates a pleasing visual uniformity that doesn’t challenge notions of how people dressed in period. The action of the play technically spans several months time, though the bulk of it takes place over a two-and-a-half to three-day stretch depending on how you want to interpret the script’s cues. With that in mind, there are very few actual costume changes throughout the production. Once a character enters the stage space, what you see them wearing is pretty much what you will see them in throughout the rest of the play. The bulk of the changes consist of adding or subtracting hats/gloves/cloaks/veils as opposed to major clothing changes.
Of course, the infamous yellow cross-gartered stockings Malvolio wears late in the play were an inevitable change, Shakespeare having actually wrote this into the script, but they are also a relatively easy change to make from a mechanics standpoint and still keep the same clothing ensemble for visual continuity.
Maria has one of the few full costuming changes in the play, and my sense is that it is meant to denote when the action has shifted from the “public” portions of Olivia’s household to the “private” more informal areas. But you can see that the wig styling is very hard edged and dated looking, not a modern lace-front piece that bears up close scrutiny. It’s a period-accurate hard-shell hair hat and the makeup styling is distinctly unflattering in a modern sense but completely appropriate to lending the illusion of femininity in period.
The other major notable full change is Viola. When we first see her she is in “bedraggled” Elizabethan meant to convey that she has just survived the shipwreck that immediately proceeds the action of the play. The Globe chose to emulate the practice of casting males for the female roles as would have been done in Shakespeare’s tenure with the company. The major difference however is that to a one, each man playing a female role is decades older than would have been accepted in Shakespeare’s day. The average age of the boys playing the female roles was 13-19. Let that sink in a minute…
Using young boys to play the female roles was not, despite the quaint notions put forth by Shakespeare in Love and countless high school and college English and theater teacher/professors, the result of any law banning women from acting professionally on stage. Prepare to have your mind blown kiddies: It was NEVER illegal for women to act on stage in England. Because the London theater owners were trying to petition for the formation of a Theater Guild, and Guilds did not allow female members, the theater companies voluntarily emulated the guilds and did not cast women in their productions in hope that doing this would bolster their cause. But it was ONLY the London theater companies that made this stylistic choice. Outside London, women performed on stage all over the place up and down England.
Now, that bit of inaccurate twaddle dispatched, I’m going to ask you to think about Twelfth Night in a slightly larger context, i.e., how it fit into The Globe’s performance schedule rotation at the time it was written. Why? Because I think that definitely informs how the play was dealt with from a mechanics and design standpoint. Twelfth Night did not, as Shakespeare in Love charmingly implies, follow hard on the heels of Romeo and Juliet. R&J premiered in 1595, and Twelfth Night did not debut until 1601, with 11 other plays being brought to stage for their first time in between. But I do think Twelfth Night bears close ties to two other Shakespeare plays because they all came to life within a year and a half span of time (winter 1600 to spring 1602), they are the last three plays Shakespeare wrote during Queen Elizabeth’s life, and there is an incremental progression in the number and importance of female roles from one to the next.
First in the series is Hamlet (1600), which has two female roles. Gertrude being Hamlet’s mother, could have been acceptably played by one of the boy-players who was on the late end of believability in a female role (say, 18-19, just before attritioning up into the male roles) while Ophelia could be played by a less experienced/younger boy player. Bearing in mind that Shakespeare wrote his plays knowing in advance who was likely to play each role, he was writing the parts to the specific skill sets of each performer. Consequently it is worth noting that there are only minor moments in Hamlet where a female is on stage alone or with only another female character, Shakespeare did not intend for either of those boy-players to bear the burden of holding the audience’s attention on their own.
Second in the series is our play, Twelfth Night (1601). It has three female roles and notably there are significant chunks of time when it is ONLY female characters on stage, which tells you something about how Shakespeare perceived the acting strength of the three boy-players. Also of note, the role of Viola could easily have been played by the boy who portrayed Gertrude in Hamlet. Because we only see Viola very briefly dressed as a girl at the beginning of the play and she spends the rest of the play disguised as a boy, the fact that the actor was getting a bit old to be visually believable as a woman would hav been less problematic and would allow the company to capitalize on his skills a bit longer.
The third in the series is Trolius and Cressida (1602), and it sports four female roles … but this time around there are never more than two female characters on stage at a time. So the boy players who portrayed Olivia and Maria in Twelfth Night could be double-cast in the four female roles in Trolius and Cressida. The scenes in Shakespeare in Love where Henslowe is casting R&J, while amusing in their mockery of the modern theatrical casting process, are largely misrepresentative of how things would have happened. Shakespeare was writing to the strengths of the company from year to year to assure them of the most lucrative possible outcome. Writing plays abstractly without foreknowledge of who would be dispatching a given role would have left too much to chance given how uniformly the acting profession was looked down on at that time, use what you know rather than hoping for a miracle. Simply put, they could not risk many unknowns being allowed into the equation. And given the general upwardly successful trajectory that Shakespeare enjoyed, he was curating roles he created very carefully with respect to who he’d be entrusting them to on stage.
THEATER-NERDING MOMENT CONCLUDED … back to our originally scheduled review already in progress, we thank you for your patience.
Now, why do I think that the simplicity of the color palette of the costuming is important? Because it creates continuity visually. Shakespeare is notorious for plays that involve a sizable cast of characters with a variety of foreign-sounding names (given that most of the audience were likely only barely functionally literate at bests). Because of that, “branding” his characters so that they are visually recognizable each time they enter the stage space helps the audience keep up with the pace of the action. “Pace of the action”? you might be wondering. Well yes, as a matter of fact, pacing was an issue then that is not imposed now.
During the earlier half of Shakespeare’s career in theater, he/theaters in general (in London) had one main adversary: The Lord Mayor of London, who loathed the playhouses with the white-hot light of a thousand burning suns. Because of him, The Globe ended up being located across the River Thames, technically outside the city of London proper, though still under the jurisdiction of the Lord Mayor.
That doesn’t seem like that big a deal until you realize that the Lord Mayor imposed a maximum length of run time for plays (about 2 1/2 hours), go over that and you get fined, each time you go over it. To give you an idea what this meant for Shakespeare, if you use the ratio that roughly 1,000 lines of text translates to an hour of stage time, then only two of his plays would come in under the cut off, with the bulk of them going significantly over. I should also point out that this ratio is for a “straight line reading,” as in no dramatic pauses or drawn-out slow scenes for the actors to sink their teeth into. Think more along the lines of a disclaimer at the end of a medication commercial, and you’d be getting close to the speed at which dialog was being spat at The Globe’s audience.
So the plays were being delivered at a pretty fast clip, in complicated language, utilizing a large cast of characters with often foreign sounding names to an audience who were at best only minimally literate. With that as the context, we look at this reconstruction of Twelfth Night through the lens of, the simplicity of the costuming makes perfect practical sense. The clothes look appropriate to the characters, but do not “confuse” the viewer. They are SAFE.
And this is where we arrive at the point of my problem with the way The Globe has chosen to present Twelfth Night (and honestly, quite a few of its plays purporting to be accurate period reconstructions). I think they have erred on the side of SAFE in a way that would not have been possible in Shakespeare’s time. It is at this point that we need to chat a bit about “life vs. theater” and “costume vs. clothes.” Normally when we are watching a film set in the past, it is purporting to show a slice of life from that time, either factionalized or based on actual historical events. Either way, it is depicting actual life. As a result, we have a certain set bar for our expectations of the clothing the characters in the film will wear during the film. But when we go to the theater and see a play, which we have paid considerably more money for the privilege of doing, we expect a different level of visual to be presented, more “designed,” “curated,” and “thought out” so that the sets and costumes support the telling of the story we are there to see.
Well, that truth about the expectation of spectacle/entertainment of theatrical presentations is not new, and if anything I’d argue was even more important in Shakespeare’s time. Why? Because Shakespeare’s plays were presented without anything but the most rudimentary of “sets” (i.e., a bench/chair/table here and there, but nothing like the elaborate and breathtaking scenery we have become accustomed to in modern theatrical productions). Therefore, the costuming would have to have done a LOT more heavy-lifting to keep the audience visually invested in the play and entertained while also helping to establish the identity and social relationships of the characters since it was the only major visual element the audience was presented.
But the filmed Twelfth Night production is an odd bird that is neither one thing or the other. It is theater, but presented as theater from the period presented in a period manner. So it’s kind of “life” but also kind of “theater,” which means we have to look at the way the characters are dressed through TWO contextualizing lenses. The production passes the “clothing” test with flying colors, but in my opinion fails the “costume” test rather spectacularly.
To a modern eye, what we see the actors wearing in this production looks VERY theatrical. But that is a product of how fashion has evolved toward a much more casual approach to daily wear and a reduction of layers and structure, not that what we are seeing would represent something that looked intrinsically “theatrical” to an Elizabethan/Jacobean audience. On the contrary, to an audience from 1600, seeing this production of Twelfth Night would look rather boring as the characters all wear average everyday clothing that the audience could see out on the street for free. To get a better sense of how theatrical/fantasy/special-event costuming was addressed in the period, look at the following images.
These two examples were drawn by Mr. Inigo Jones, arguably the father of modern theatrical scenery as we know it. He got his start in Italy copying drawing styles there and then, through a serious of events not terribly pertinent to this review, became attached to the household of Anne of Denmark (wife of King James I of England, Scotland, and Ireland), and so was in London during the latter half of Shakespeare’s career on stage because he came with Anne when she joined James I after Queen Elizabeth’s death.
While Jones and Shakespeare never actually worked together, they would certainly have been aware of each other since Shakespeare performed at James’ court numerous times. If you look at the level of whimsy that Jones was employing in the creation of costume designs for court masques (which are essentially just theater put on by the nobility at a party), you get a better estimation of the level of over-the-top storytelling that theatrical costuming in the period was approached with. It’s a far cry from the very staid and safe image that The Globe’s modern production of Twelfth Night puts forward.
This image depicts a costume rendering done by Signor Arcimboldo in 1585, one of the artists that Jones studied and copied while in Italy perfecting his craft. You can see his clear stylistic hand that influenced the work that Jones echoes in his early endeavors.
Lest we think however that fancy fantasy costuming was only for the well to do and nobility, feast your eyes on these renderings depicting carnival costumes from Nureemberg’s Schembart Carnival which was an annual occurrence from 1449-1539. These designs are just as animated and whimsical as anything you might encounter modernly at events like ComiCon.
And the Schembart Carnival was a working-man’s event, put on by the town residents, with parades, themed competitions, and the early forerunners of parade floats even. Ultimately the event got shut down by the local constabulary because by the end of its run, the townsfolk got a bit too out of hand in the zeal of their revelry and ended up doing a fair bit of damage to local shops and residences. Bearing all that in mind though when contemplating the costuming The Globe utilized for Twelfth Night in its 2003/13 production, there is a wide gap between how the culture of the era would have likely addressed fantastical or whimsical costuming and how The Globe has chosen to represent it.
Now you might be forgiven for thinking of Twelfth Night as a rather “domestic” play set in the countryside of England at an estate, and thus the more pedestrian everyday nature of the costuming skewing more toward street clothing would be acceptable. Let me disabuse you of that notion. The play is set in Illyria, which certainly WAS a real place … but only existed by that name in antiquity even in Shakespeare’s day. The geography that was once Illyria is a stretch of coastline and inner provinces that would have taken a bite out of Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia, Herzegovina, Montenegro, and Albania. It was a romanticized locale Shakespeare chose and also then alluded, in the text of Twelfth Night, to wars from antiquity that were fought there.
That being said, Billy-boy was a bit inconsistent in establishing the locale, he peppers the play with oddly conflicting geographical references to businesses and places in London not far from The Globe itself. But the point is, the play purports to take place in a foreign ancient land and therefore one would think some effort might have been taken to help convey that fact in the way that the characters in the play are dressed, since their mode of dress was really the only visual cue the audience would be afforded to support the references in the text about time and place.
Hence my point about “clothing” vs. “costume,” we are not watching a story set in Illyria as the basis of the film. We are watching a filmed PLAY purporting to present a reasonable approximation of how that PLAY was performed in Elizabethan England and set in Illyria, might have been presented. Using that context, what the actors wear, by rights, should look more theatrical than like everyday Elizabethan street wear that the audience could exit The Globe and see walking about on passers-by.
To wrap this up, I want to reiterate that I loved this production, both live and on film. I think it does an amazing job of engaging its audience with a concept of period manner and behavior that you don’t often see on stage or on film. I think its stewardship to the styles of dress at the time are virtually unparalleled, and the clothing seen on screen could easily be displayed in a museum as an example of styles and construction techniques from the period, and I think the actors uniformly inhabit those clothes with a truth and naturalness that make them seem as normal as jeans and T-shirts are to us today … all of which are truly commendable attributes that we should applaud and celebrate. But I also think it’s important to be cognizant of how it diverges from true historical accuracy in its method of presentation so we can always have something more to reach for and aspire to when creating pieces like this.
There are other ways I think that The Globe misses the mark, but they have less to do with the fundamentals of the clothing and more with other aspects of the mechanics of how a play would have been presented then as opposed to how we can viably do so now to a modern audience. I will happily discuss those aspects with anyone who is curious and wants to come find me on social media.
Have you seen The Globe’s 2013 production of Twelfth Night?