Theatre Review: Twelfth Night

Belvoir St Theatre until 4th September
Directed by Eamon Flack

Twelfth Night

Shakespeare: boring; archaic; staid; difficult; artsy-fartsy; a chore. Not this production of Twelfth Night! Pacey. Clever. Colourful. Hilarious. A wealth of comic timing and techniques delivered expertly by well-training, long-practised artists. Jokes and wordplay written 400-plus years ago made clearer and extended by a physicality of performance and stage business that milks visual comedy. The cast is having a ball and the audience is invited. This is the Shakespeare production you drag your friends to so they can experience exactly why you like Shakespeare. They’ll love him too.
It’s so much fun, it’s easy to forget that Twelfth Night is one of Shakespeare’s problem plays, that it’s questioned as to whether it’s a comedy at all. There is a depth in the play that this performance doesn’t touch. It’s a director’s quandary that to go the full distance with the questions that Shakespeare asks will destroy its happy ending. What’s a comedy without a happy ending? You see, Shakespeare questions who we love, why we love and can we love on demand? By tying up most of the loose ends at the end, the reader of the text can feel deflated. Antonio who bares so much love and risks his life for the young Sebastian is cast off in the slacking of Sebastian’s new-found lust in Olivia. Olivia, mistaking Sebastian for Cesario, spirits him off to a church. When Sebastian’s identity is revealed she accepts that he is not the person whose proxy-wooing captivated her and accepts him because he is male and looks like Cesario/Viola and they are now married. The purity and passion in these same-sex relationships is cast aside for a facile heterosexual denouement.
Is there satisfying elements to the ending of the text? Yes. Orsino, who has been denying his attraction to Cesario/Viola can safely love the female Cesario/Viola and Sir Toby Belch marries his match in hijinx, Maria. In reading the text one wonders whether in a freer society if Viola would pursue the bond she makes with Olivia or Orsino. This production doesn’t go that deep. Eamon Flack’s interpretation stays on the surface of the text. It’s the right decision for a satisfied audience at the end of the show. Not that he doesn’t touch on same-sex love at all. Casting a female, Amber McMahon, to play Sebastian may incite questioning along that line as much as it gets a laugh when Olivia, Anita Hegh, kisses him/her. It does create challenges for the actor playing Cesario/Viola, Nikki Shiels.
Cesario/Viola spends a large chunk of the play onstage. It is her journey that we follow and that drives the play forward. By choosing to keep the interpretation on the surface she spends a long time in bemusement at Olivia’s advances. It’s a really hard intension to maintain and maintain interest in. A subtlety in response to Olivia’s poetry is lacking that would have enriched the performance for the actor and the audience. Similarly, Sebastian could have been more fleshed out. But how far do you go before a comedy in performance becomes the tragi-comedy of the text?
It’s often asked, does it really matter who wrote Shakespeare’s plays? Would it change our enjoyment of them? Would it change their interpretation? In the case of Twelfth Night, William of Stratford is such an unknown creature that we can make of the play what we will. However, if the bisexual Earl of Oxford were believed to be the author then it would be harder to keep the interpretation on the surface. It would be seen as part of a tradition of plays that are homosexual in theme and openly questioning sexuality. But I digress.
While all of the performances were really good and the comedy well timed I have to make special mention of Keith Robinson as Feste. He entertained the audience as the court jester as much as the court of the play. In coming back from the intermission he opened the second act in a sit-down – stand-up of jokes of a contemporary nature that then blended back into the text really well. His facial expressions, his timing – he had the audience. Anita Hegh as Olivia made great contrast of austerity and unbridled passion that resulted in many laughs. Movement Director Scott Witt had the ensemble cast moving in a choreography that was always purposeful and visually effective. The cast dressed as clowns in a sanatorium and moving in a colourful but starkly bare stage reminded me of an ancient chorus. Their movement physicalized the inner life/turmoil of the shipwrecked Viola and compensated for the lack of props and setting elements a more realistic set could have offered. Witt’s movement direction completed Michael Hankin’s set.
Any production can be knit picked but this one is just too engaging. It’s just wonderful.

Thank you to Elly Baxter from Belvior Publicity and Public Affairs for permission to use their photos.

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