Twelfth Night: An interview with Max Gill

Inviting the audience to ‘experience Illyria as you have never seen it before; an iridescent and perilous realm’, Oxford University Drama Society’s summer tour production of ‘Twelfth Night’ promises to revitalise Shakespeare’s comedy of misadventure and false identity. I spoke to director Max Gill about interpreting the fantasy world of Illyria and its inhabitants, the practical challenges of staging a touring show, and the importance of music and design in this production.

Why did you choose to stage ‘Twelfth Night’?

Because I think it’s one of Shakespeare’s most difficult plays to direct and conceive of. It teeters all the time between an overt comedy with lots of ridiculous situations, while at the same time there are elements of tragedy and quite troubling psychological portraits of people. As a director it makes you have to make quite bold decisions in what you’re doing, which is quite scary and potentially risky, but the freedom it gives you is really satisfying.

Has working with a student team and younger actors given you greater freedom?

I think so. I try and instill an atmosphere in the rehearsal room where everyone’s opinion is valid, no matter what role they play, whether they’re part of the production team or a musician. It’s very collaborative and I think young people starting off really appreciate that because it’s everyone’s show, not just the main actor or the director or producer’s show. Because these actors are young and dynamic they are willing to try things out, be bold and make mistakes about things which might not work out in the end but we can really play around with them. The group is really experimental and open to new ideas, and in that way it’s been a real pleasure to work with them.

How do you try and strike a balance between your directorial ideas and a more collaborative effort?

It’s important to set up the basics – a parameter and a framework within which the actors can play. You set the boundaries and within that the important thing is that the actors feel that this is always a decision which they understand personally, and they’re never doing something which they’ve been told to do and they’re not 100% behind. I always feel that if they don’t know what they’re doing at any point, 99% of the time that’s entirely my fault.

Duke Orsino © Oxford University Drama Society
Duke Orsino © Oxford University Drama Society

What sets your ‘Twelfth Night’ apart from any other?

It’s set in a place called Illyria which is one of those Shakespearean places where you’re not really sure where it is. Geographically it’s somewhere near Turkey and Greece, but that’s sort of irrelevant to the story. What we’re experimenting with is the idea that Illyria is a kind of psychological landscape, a state of mind. At the beginning there’s a shipwreck which brings Viola to the island, and we’re playing around with the fact that Viola might potentially have died on this shipwreck, and that she has slipped into an otherworld. Illyria becomes something like an afterlife and a liminal space which is a fusion of all periods of time mixed together. In some way it represent essential or timeless aspects of human nature.

The premise of the design and the visual aspects of the show is that Illyrian society is constructed entirely of shipwrecks that the inhabitants find washed up. They’re like magpies, so it’s a really eclectic mixture of different styles of clothes, and there’s a huge court made out of bits of dilapidated wood. At the same time with this otherworldly, dreamlike, abstract atmosphere we’re using music to play with the idea of simultaneously familiar and unfamiliar landscapes. We’re using live music with harp, harpsichord, and drumm, and we also have two opera singers who work as sirens who cause the ship to run aground, and are present in the Duke’s harem. The idea is that if they’re very recognisable pieces of music that are altered slightly and knitted together in a way that’s quite unexpected, it plays with the idea of simultaneous recognition and alienation. There’s also the idea of music being able to express something that words can’t. So often in the play we see people saying something that’s deliberately elusive and enigmatic when really they mean something else behind it. Music in Illyria is used as a means to transcend the restrictions of language, whether that’s the limit of a person’s own means of expression, or the limits of gender roles, who’s in charge, and how you refer to people.

Are the singers not singing texted material?

No, it’s a combination of things. We have some Mozart, Wagner, Verdi, Puccini, Handel, some Russian folk music – it’s a really eclectic mix. I really tried to find music that I think will never fail to move people, regardless of whether or not you “understand” music. Something I’m very interested in with music rather than language or gesture is why it affects people in such a way, a way that will always make someone tap their feet or feel sentimental. Can it trigger off universal memory, or universal understanding, regardless of where you are from? So music knits Illyria together as much as it ties it to our world.

Twelfth Night © Oxford University Drama Society
Twelfth Night © Oxford University Drama Society

‘Twelfth Night’ is one of Shakespeare’s plays with the most diegetic music. Does this help with the idea of a liminal space being produced?

Absolutely, we’ve given certain characters motifs and themes which will recur throughout the play. For example Sebastian and Viola share a theme which is a melody in inversion, put together by our composer Joseph Currie. In rehearsal, we also found out how much music helps the actor, particularly if you have a monologue. These are almost like psychological resting places for the character, speaking within their own head rather than the rest of the world of the play. If you deliver a line and are left in silence then you’re brought back to being you, but when you have music with you it provides something of a bedding for the character. But at the same time we are using a fair amount of underscoring. The music is very much part of the world and it accompanies most of the action in the background, as well as the moments it enters directly into the scene so characters are directly interacting with it.

Obviously your vision of Illyria demands quite an elaborate set – how do you manage that when it’s a touring production?

This is the big dilemma. Everything has to be collapsible and ideally fit into a suitcase. We have a huge throne, gallows, chandelier, platforms, hanging drapes and sheets which our production team are working miracles on to cut it all down to size and allow us to take it to Japan as well as around the UK. At certain points we can’t have as much as we would have liked, but the idea that the inhabitants utilise objects that they find means that we can use quite simple objects in a different way, and use what looks like a lot of aesthetic junk!

When you say there’s a cut-off point, are there things that you would have liked to have included that have been left out?

Yes. In the play there are very demarcated zones between Olivia’s house, outside her house, the Duke’s palace, and the garden, which are very hard to try and create without large sets, so we’ve had to try and demarcate it on stage. The concept with the set, then, is that it’s not a specific location in any sense. We’ve pared everything down to become more symbolic and suggestive, and produce an iridescent quality.

Twelfth Night © Oxford University Drama Society
Twelfth Night © Oxford University Drama Society

How are you using lighting to help create this effect?

We have a lighting designer who normally specialises in film lighting which is quite different from stage, but we want the lighting to become its own set piece. From a director’s perspective, I always find that people are a little neurotic about stage lighting – we have to see someone’s face as they come on stage, if they’re not in the middle of the spotlight then it’s a problem – but no-one in real life is lit properly. By experimenting with how a scene would change if it was between patches of darkness and pools of light, or characters control their own light sources with lamps, lighting will go a long way towards helping us create the atmosphere we are after.

How have you managed costuming?

We spent a long time collecting interesting pieces, with choice elements that represent the characters. Every person wears a few items which really signify their social status. We’re also getting some costumes from the RSC, an amazing dress for Olivia which was just on exhibition a few months ago. A lot of the costumes are based on Victorian dresses, and some are very much inspired by the commedia dell’arte (which I’m sure every director says!) But what I mean by that is that a lot of the costumes are white but dirty and tattered, and they can look like a quite sinister and sordid acrobat. Also, one of the difficult things about Twelfth Night is the idea of social status and the fluidity of people’s emotions and attentions which I think is quite a commedia dell’arte principle – you would have people playing different roles every day and engaging with the audience. A lot of people in the play are deceiving, pretending to be somebody else, so we have brought out the idea of masking, the pretence of the masked actor pretending to be somebody else.

Valentine & Curio © Oxford University Drama Society
Valentine & Curio © Oxford University Drama Society

Is the interplay between music and theatre something you’d be particularly interested in developing in future?

Yes, at some point I’d like to really work on the idea of combining opera and a classic play, which I don’t think is being done too often. There’s the fun of teetering between the pure gratification and entertainment of staging theatre, and then using the words of something like Shakespeare which, however much people like to pretend, is often obfuscatory and difficult to understand, and there are passages which just aren’t as interesting as others. With music and other media you can potentially cover these troughs.

Do you think this technique would work as well with a tragedy as a comedy?

I think it would work well because music, in a way, is very high-pressured and often overwhelming. It’s something that’s beyond our control – we hear it and it will take us where it’s going to and we don’t know what’s going to happen next. In that way you can use music to create an impression of paranoia, pressure. Music crops up in genres where you’re often expressing extreme states – film, opera – so you can absolutely use music for tragedy. And often, juxtaposition with the events that you’re seeing on stage – a traumatic scene accompanied by something jolly – can be particularly disturbing in a way that I’m really intrigued by.

Leah Broad

‘Twelfth Night’ is in Yokahama and Tokyo before coming to Oxford in the Bodleian Old Quad from 12th-14th August, and London’s Southwark Playhouse from 20th-23rd August, and Guilford 27th-20th September. For more information or to book tickets, please visit

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