Throughout the rehearsals for Twelfth Night I’ve been exploring the various relationships Viola has with other key characters. One of the most important of these is of course that with her twin brother Sebastian. It’s a difficult relationship to explore and even more difficult to portray, given that they only appear together on stage once during the whole play. Sebastian talks about Viola to Antonio at one point and openly grieves for the sister he presumes is drowned, but as Viola spends almost all of the play disguised as Cesario, a young man serving Count Orsino, she cannot be so open with her emotions or her past. Yet the supposed loss of a twin, her best friend, someone she has spent her whole life with, must be like a gaping hole inside. I don’t have a twin so can only imagine how that must feel, but I do have a little sister, and the thought of losing her steals the very breath from my lungs. That sudden absence of someone so important, so pivotal to your existence, must shock you to the core. Then, once the numbness has passed, the searing pain must tear across your heart, wounding your soul with such an intensity of sorrow, that for Viola to keep these emotions hidden as she lives her days as Cesario, she must truly have such strength within her. This therefore tells me as much about Viola herself as it does about her relationship with her brother.
Building up this relationship, it has helped that Chris, the actor playing Sebastian, and I have several character traits in common – we’re not the best time-keepers, we both dress a bit 90’s (sorry Chris!), we’re generally good-natured (my pre-caffeine state at 8am on a workday doesn’t count), and we’re very excitable (basically we’re two big kids). However, before the auditions we had never met, so we’ve had to try to develop that bond on stage in just under two months, through rehearsals and the odd evening down the pub. Thankfully we get on brilliantly – I’m sure trying to make it work with someone I couldn’t stand the sight of would have been a far greater challenge! I’ve been so keen to work on that onstage relationship between the two of them because of the lack of affection I’ve seen between Viola and Sebastian in productions I’ve seen in the past. Because, as far as Viola’s action in the play is concerned, he doesn’t make an appearance until the end, some versions have almost treated him as an afterthought, a spare part to tack on with a happy ending. A notable exception of this is the 1996 Trevor Nunn film version with Imogen Stubbs as Viola and Steven Mackintosh as Sebastian, where the pain she displays at the start when thinking her brother is dead is heart-wrenching. I’ve tried not to think too much about that version though, as I love it so much, I’d hate to risk ending up with my Viola being a copy!
I think the important thing to do is to keep that loss of her brother and stifling sorrow as an undercurrent throughout the whole play, not being evident but always being there (easier said than done!). Then when the two are reunited in the final scene (would this class as a spoiler alert?!), it needs to be a big moment, a big deal for them. That may seem obvious, but I have seen it brushed over before with barely a thought as to the actual gravity of this reunion for them both. With this in mind, in rehearsals Chris and I have been working on focusing the intensity of that emotion in the final scene. That reaching out to each other, two lost souls coming back together again, is a strong image in my mind; tentative at first, then as the truth is confirmed, sheer joy flooding over them. Might there even be a tear? I think there should! But we will have to wait til the dress run now to see whether my tear ducts agree!