The fascination of identical twins

Though it hinges on the unarguably cruel separation of the twin girls as infants – “it’s a pretty wicked thing to do,” says Drewe – Kastner’s book is ultimately “a story of joy and reconciliation.” The duo hope the songs they have written for the show highlight “that healing is possible, even after the worst of events”. The story was conceived during World War Two, and written just after it. “I think Kastner wanted to say that one can make amends if you want to,” says Drewe.

Shakespeare was himself a father of non-identical twins, Judith and Hamnet, the latter of  whom died aged just 11 years old, something movingly explored in Maggie O’Farrell’s Booker prize-winning 2020 novel Hamnet. This might explain, says Nunn, why he was originally drawn to Plautus’s play about twins, Menaechmi, on which he based Twelfth Night. Dr Will Tosh, a research fellow at Shakespeare’s Globe, explains that Shakespeare used twins both “as source of comic mistaken identity, but also, later on, yearning and loss”. It’s tempting to “play armchair psychologist”, he says, when looking at the use of twins in both Comedy of Errors and Twelfth Night, when you know that the former was written before the death of Hamnet, and Twelfth Night afterwards. The tone of the latter play was much more bittersweet, with its “fantasy of children being reunited which we also see in the later plays”. 

More unnerving depictions

In fictional narratives, identical twins are usually either a source of comedy or, conversely, disturbance. Doppelgängers or spirit doubles exist in many cultures – in Norse and Egyptian myth – and seeing one is often portrayed as a bad omen. One of horror’s most iconic images is of the Brady girls in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980), standing in the hotel hallway in their matching dresses and chanting in unison an invitation to young protagonist Danny Torrance to “come and play with us forever and ever”. David Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers (1988), which starred Jeremy Irons as twin gynaecologists Elliot and Beverly Mantle, and was inspired by the eerie story of real-life twin gynaecologists Stewart and Cyril Marcus, was also deeply unnerving and strange, with the Mantles using the fact no one can tell them apart for malign purposes. 

The bond between twins, whether identical or not, is often depicted as intense and claustrophobic, with them sharing an almost supernatural connection with one another. An intense twin relationship is the basis for Diane Setterfield’s gothic novel The Thirteenth Tale, while Curtis Sittenfeld’s Sisterland features twins who have a telepathic bond. Agnieszka Smoczyńsk’s upcoming film The Silent Twins, starring Letitia Wright and Tamara Lawrence, retells the story of June and Jennifer Gibbons, twin girls growing up in Wales in the 1980s who communicated only with each other, and spent many years in Broadmoor high-security psychiatric hospital. The story of the Gibbons twins has already been the basis for a book, a documentary and a stage play. Their intense connection, which ended when one of the twins died, “freeing” the other, seems to captivate people.

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