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Last week I saw the final New York performance of a Twelfth Night now touring the United States, brought over by a British production company called Cheek by Jowl . This Twelfth Night is performed entirely in Russian by Russian performers, with Shakespeare’s English only as supertitles projected above the stage.

Yes, that’s right: Shakespeare in Russian. Oddly enough, the supertitles are one reason the production works so well. Although abridged and occasionally hiccupy¯a character rattles away in Russian for twenty or thirty seconds while four words in English sit on the screen¯the supertitles mean you lose only about as much of the Shakespearean text as you would in any normally abridged production.

Of course, one main reason to see a Shakespeare play performed is to hear a careful, nuanced spoken interpretation of the words. But drama critic Ben Brantley had this to say in the New York Times :

The glorious surprise of this [Russian] Twelfth Night . . . is in how it finds an alchemical substance in Shakespeare that transcends the verbal. [The director and designer], who have been working with Russian theater companies since 1997, make the heretical case that the essence of Shakespeare isn’t exclusively linguistic. The words, it seems, are but steppingstones to a universal pattern of images and insights about human behavior and the perplexing world that thwarts and shapes it. Shakespeare’s first language, it would seem, is not English, after all; it’s Theater.

I’d hesitate to make that claim about Shakespeare generally, but I agree with Brantley when it comes to that odd beast Twelfth Night . It’s one of Shakespeare’s strangest. Not in the slightly unsettling way of his romances, in which human beings are mistaken for statues and shipwrecked magicians enslave monsters. And not in the slightly dangerous way of his comedies, in which the comic lovers seem always poised to go the route of Romeo and Juliet. Twelfth Night is strange because its two tight storylines seem totally at odds, and it takes a performance and all that entails¯inflection, gesture, mood, pace¯to fit them together.

The primary plot of Twelfth Night involves mistaken identities and a love triangle. It has a few dark moments, particularly toward the end, but generally it is a gently funny carousel of old theatrical standbys: unrequited love, cross-dressing, separated twins. The subplot, however, is about revenge¯and it careens between the screamingly funny and the deeply disturbing.

The focus of this subplot is Malvolio, the proud, puritanical steward of the Countess Olivia. Early in the play, Malvolio puts a stop to the carousings of Olivia’s drunken parasite of an uncle, Sir Toby Belch, and the servants and hangers-on who follow him. In revenge, they forge a love note from Olivia to her "unknown beloved." The letter hints at Malvolio ("I may command where I adore") and asks him to appear before Olivia constantly smiling (though she is in mourning for her dead brother) and dressed in yellow stockings with cross-garters (a fashion, we are told, she detests).

In one of the central scenes of the play, the clowns spy on the steward as he reads their letter and convinces himself that Olivia wants to make him Count Malvolio, master of her house. When Malvolio carries out the letter’s instructions, he is imprisoned as a madman; the clowns then visit him, trick him further, mock him, and abuse him. Released at last from prison, the broken and ruined steward interrupts the happy ending of the play to demand an explanation. His last line is, "I’ll be revenged on the whole pack of you!"

Hardly the stuff of comedy, you might think. The scene in which the clowns watch Malvolio discover the letter is usually called the Gulling Scene. It acts as a weathervane, pointing to the way a particular production of Twelfth Night understands itself: as something broad and harmless, or as a dark piece about human cruelty, or as something wavering between.

The Gulling Scene is always funny, though, and the Russian Twelfth Night does the comedy full justice. As they watch Malvolio, the clowns perform a slapstick ballet, popping out regularly from behind the long black tapestries that stand in for scenery, cracking jokes, bickering, threatening, and bundling each other into hiding when they get hotheaded enough to become conspicuous. For the first half of the play, Dmitry Shcherbina’s young, handsome Malvolio melts on and offstage like Jeeves in a morning suit. But inside, Malvolio is pulled apart by ambition, contempt, and desire for Olivia, and the letter exploits his every weakness. In the Gulling Scene, first his composure goes, then his posture, then his jacket, until he is trembling, wide-eyed, kneeling before the letter in his shirt-sleeves, wiping the sweat from his neck with an open palm. Meanwhile, the clowns caper behind.

But while Malvolio’s mockers act like pantomime clowns, this Malvolio is wholly human. The audience laughed as he began to fall apart before our eyes¯and quickly sobered as we realized that his pride is no more ridiculous or ugly than the self-delusion and the longing of many of the play’s other characters. If they do not deserve to be mocked, scorned, and ruined, then neither does he.

Here we reach a key moment in the production: In a bit of perfect timing, just as the audience realized this, so did the clowns on stage. Malvolio exclaims in relief and joy:

Daylight and champagne discovers not more: This is open. I will be proud, I will read politic authors, I will baffle Sir Toby, I will wash off gross acquaintance, I will be point-devise the very man. I do not now fool myself, to let imagination jade me; for every reason excites to this, that my lady loves me . . . . She manifests herself to my love, and with a kind of injunction drives me to these habits of her liking. I thank my stars I am happy.

And the clowns come out from their hiding places, stand still mid-stage, and regard him with surprise, pity, and guilt. For one electric moment, it seems the revenge plot might end with a confession. Then the clowns turn around and go back into hiding. Without words, this Twelfth Night points out the sheer cruelty of the clowns’ decision to go through with their revenge¯which is what makes believable the prank’s descent from a lark at the beginning to the ruin of a man’s life at the end.

There’s a long theatrical tradition of pranks that end well: that teach a bombast a lesson, that expose a villain, that unite young lovers. Shakespeare is full of them; so are Molière and comic opera and all the forms that derive from the commedia dell’arte tradition. So are television shows like The Honeymooners and I Love Lucy .

So much so, in fact, that we can forget that pranks are treacherous in real life. That’s one reason our culture is so accepting of Borat , the outrageous Kazakh journalist and alter-ego of comedian Sacha Baron Cohen. We’re tempted to dismiss moral concerns about Cohen’s pranks because through many of them he ostensibly teaches moral lessons about hypocrisy, racism, and anti-Semitism. But his pranks are no different from the ones pulled by Twelfth Night ‘s clowns. Such pranks are lies, and deception damages the deceiver. Professor Christopher Tollefson argued this recently at the blog Right Reason :

Cohen seems to me to do great damage to his own integrity by constantly maintaining a pose, an image, an appearance at odds with what he knows to be true. This is why the difference between his quasi-documentary and fictional movies is so important. Genuine actors operate within a framework established by the imitative nature of film¯hence a good person can portray a bad one, or act out bad actions, without it being a reflection of his or her character. Cohen, however, is not acting within such an established framework. In making his movie, he deliberately took advantage of the lack of this framework, and a different set of communicative expectations, namely, the expectation that his characters were real people, dense but not utterly unlikable. What he does cannot really be considered acting, any more than can the traveling salesman who makes false promises about his product.

What about the objects of ridicule? some might ask. Don’t they deserve to be publicly humiliated? But then we have to ask, in turn, what is the point of humiliating them? To teach them a moral lesson? To teach others a moral lesson? To feel superior ourselves? Might not the first two be accomplished in more effective, more moral, less cruel ways?

And where does it end? With the bright laughter of the Gulling Scene, or with the destruction of a human being, and his dark oath, "I’ll be revenged on the whole pack of you"? With both, answers the Russian Twelfth Night ¯and the one leads to the other.

Mary Angelita Ruiz is an assistant editor at First Things .

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