Hey, Ho, the Wind and the Rain, Twelfth Night Is Shakespeare Lite

As we take our seats for Twelfth Night or Uncle Vanya , playing in repertory at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, we see projected on the back wall of each set the same unifying message: “O learn to read what silent love hath writ.” Hmmm, we surely think. Food for thought there!

Sam Mendes, the director of both productions from the Donmar Warehouse of London, is tipping us off that the plays are united by the common theme of love-unstated, disguised, thwarted, maddening love. (Until, that is, the happy end of Twelfth Night .) He’s packaging the productions and the message for us in a pretty bow-very adept he is at it, too. But the truth beneath the stylish surface of things is that Twelfth Night has nothing in common with Vanya at all. For the one is a romantic comedy about the mystery of identity, gender and fate, while the other is a tragedy of self-delusion and despair.

To be sure, Twelfth Night has its troubling, sour undertone. Shakespeare gave the play a subtitle, “What You Will.” (Implying “What You Make Of It,” as well as the jolly in-joke, “What You Will Shakespeare.”) It’s the last of the romantic comedies and the bridge to the great tragedies, beginning with Hamlet . It’s a revel, then, that takes place in a fairy-tale land, Illyria. Yet a darker, surprisingly colder note is struck in the unnecessary, cruel humiliation of this pompous fellow, Malvolio, killjoy steward to Olivia. Who does him in? Unhappy, middle-aged, feckless drunks in league with an abusive “gentlewoman.” It’s as if they’ve nothing better to do.

When all is said and done-when the dawn breaks on blinding hangovers and the cakes and ale are gone-“the madly used Malvolio” has been jailed, straitjacketed and blindfolded in a hovel as an outcast madman. And Feste, the clown, the “allowed fool,” is no barrel of laughs, either, with his melancholy, rainy songs of golden youth and romance never-lasting:

In delay there lies no plenty;

Then come kiss me, sweet and twenty,

Youth’s a stuff will not endure.

But Mr. Mendes’ version is an atmospheric romp, a Twelfth Night lite. I failed to warm to designer Mark Thompson’s emblem for the Vanya production-a dominating, 30-foot-long dining-room table. With Twelfth Night , it’s a huge picture frame center stage, and I’m afraid I’m none the wiser. Why the empty frame? The stage is also decorated enchantingly with candles and lanterns. There’s no hint of the ocean that almost drowned Viola “after our ship did split.” Mr. Mendes has her entering magic Illyria carrying a suitcase like a wide-eyed ingenue in the big city about to ask, “Which way to Broadway?” Fortunately, Viola is played by Emily Watson, who is magic.

But that intrusive picture frame is just an arty effect. Characters sometimes pose in it pictorially before entering, or Mr. Mendes will leave someone framed in it for a while-creating blatant dramatic ironies. The straitjacketed Malvolio, usually unseen, thus sits silently in the picture frame lest we forget about him as the surrounding comedy continues merrily on as usual. But the last thing Twelfth Night ought to suggest is a tableau vivant or still life. It’s a play that’s constantly mutating and on the move.

O learn to read what silent love hath writ:

To hear with eyes belongs to love’s fine wit.

The complete couplet from Sonnet 23 suggests that we read between the lines. But Mr. Mendes, underlining all before us, gives us no lines to read between. Mystery is imposed and true enchantment absent. Orsino, Duke of Illyria, finds himself strangely attracted to Viola, who’s disguised as a young man, and Viola falls madly, secretively in love with him. In Elizabethan times, women were played by guys, of course. So it would have been Duke attracted to boy, who’s really a girl, who’s really a boy. The fun and gender games need an innocent dawn of erotic attraction. But Mr. Mendes spells it out by soon having the two of them in a passionate kiss (followed by knowing embarrassment).

It takes the illicit romance out of things (as well as the Shakespearean). The black-veiled Olivia, officially mourning the loss of her brother, falls in love at calamitous first sight with Viola, thinking she’s a man: “How now! Even so quickly may one catch the plague?” But Helen McCrory’s coarse Olivia makes her intentions too eagerly clear from the outset. Desperate for Viola’s love, she later throws off her dress for “him,” stripping down to reveal her little black panties. It’s less Twelfth Night , more West End sex comedy. But Ms. McCrory’s Olivia is what the English call “a goer.” She and the smirking Sebastian (Viola’s twin brother) therefore go to bed immediately, reappearing wrapped in bedsheets rather than the innocent “wonder that enwraps.”

Simon Russell Beale first appears as a showily comic Malvolio, playing him like a fastidious, campy butler. Mr. Beale is seen to be acting, going for laughs (and getting them). His Uncle Vanya is pathetic rather than tragic; so Malvolio goes. Some of us prefer a Malvolio who isn’t in the least bit funny, as pompous pricks are fatally humorless. But he makes him an innate figure of fun. We don’t pity Malvolio as we should, though his mad scene is as hard as nails in a cross.

In fact, Malvolio appears in relatively few scenes, as Shylock does in Merchant of Venice . Yet, like Shylock, he should dominate and trouble our memory. Mr. Beale’s portrait amounts to an affectionate parody of the Puritan rudely awoken in his hair net by Sir Toby Belch and Co. He looks unusually chic in the yellow-stocking scene. But if Malvolio possesses no genuine dignity in the first place, he has no dignity to lose-no lofty height of maligned seriousness from which to fall into tragic public contempt.

Alas, Mark Strong as the narcissistic Orsino, like his flat Dr. Astrov in Uncle Vanya, is technically accomplished, but unexciting. He’s too much the same in both productions. So, too, Ms. McCrory’s actressy Yelena and Olivia. I thought Selina Cadell overplayed Vanya’s crone of a mother, but she’s a fine, spiky Maria here. Anthony O’Donnell, good and self-effacing in the cameo role of Ilya Telegin, makes a first-rate, dangerous Feste and looks the part, as if he were born in that raggedy costume of his. The Sebastian of Gyuri Sarossy is too fey (but for a change, Sebastian actually looks like his twin). Skillful David Bradley, the burnt-out Professor Serebryakov in Vanya , plays that old fool Sir Andrew Aguecheek, and Paul Jesson makes a traditionally blustery, low-comedy Sir Toby Belch, who might also be renamed Sir Toby Fart.

Emily Watson’s Viola saves the day! As Sonya, lapdog to Astrov in Uncle Vanya, she touches the heart. Ms. Watson herself was never plain, but her Sonya believes herself to be, which is the important thing. Her Viola is memorable and naturally poetic, her unfussy intelligence and seriousness very alive, her sense of wonder just lovely. Some prefer their Violas on the butch side, but Viola’s appeal is found in her mercurial femininity. Ms. Watson speaks the lines as if saying them spontaneously for the first time. When you’ve seen Twelfth Night once, or twice, or three or four times-and you will-to hear it made fresh and renewed is some kind of enchantment.