Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night is over 400 years old. While it’s a piece that has love and grief as its central themes, it’s certainly one of Shakespeare’s lighter works, with respect to its content, and one of the more commonly performed pieces.
When performing a work from Shakespeare’s collection today, it’s imperative for production creators to be bold in their choices, to think carefully about the finished product their endeavours to reimagine the piece will ultimately resemble, and to fix their sights firmly on establishing what will distinguish the production from those stagings that have come before. Essentially, how can you make your interpretation fresh and compelling viewing for today’s audiences?
Director Eamon Flack (Belvoir’s artistic director) has bought Twelfth Night to life in a version that uses a script almost identical to the show as it was written, including some text that Flack himself describes as mere ‘archaic nonsense’. While what has been created is a full, faithful mounting of Twelfth Night, the question is, is the production as memorable as could have been achieved?
For those unacquainted with this comedy (or those whose engagement with Shakespeare ended when they closed their high school English texts for the final time), it’s a story that begins when Viola (Nikki Shiels) is rescued from a shipwreck by a sea captain, believing her twin brother, Sebastian (Amber McMahon), has drowned. Ultimately, she learns that that is not the case.
Viola disguises herself as a man (calling herself ‘Cesario’), and enters the service of Duke Orsino (Damien Ryan), with whom she falls in love, but the duke is in love with a countess, Olivia (Anita Heigh). Viola, as ‘Cesario’, agrees to go to Olivia and profess the Duke’s love for the countess on his behalf. But Olivia, convinced that ‘Cesario’ is a man, falls in love with Olivia, thus creating the love triangle of Twelfth Night.
Aside from the central love triangle narrative, we’re introduced to Malvolio (Peter Carroll), Olivia’s eternally grimacing and snobbish steward. Several characters concoct a plan to make Malvolio believe Olivia is in love with him, forcing him to engage in foolish behaviour as a result. Involved in that conspiracy are Olivia’s uncle, Sir Toby Belch (John Howard), Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Anthony Phelan), two of Olivia’s servants, Maria (Lucia Mastrantone) and Fabian (also played by McMahon), and finally, her fool, Feste (Keith Robinson).
Twelfth Night is certainly light on for Shakespeare, but nevertheless can be highly entertaining.
Possibly the greatest achievement of this incarnation is Carroll’s exceptional performance as Malvolio. His performance is characterised by impeccable comedic timing from the get go, first as haughty and horrid then silly and slightly outrageous, in order to return, what he thinks, are the countess’ declarations of love. His conceding to the conspirators’ suggestion that Olivia wishes for him to dress in yellow stockings makes for a particularly amusing moment on stage. It’s then equally entertaining to watch Malvolio locked in a dark ‘prison’ for being insane, mocked by the conspirators. Simply put, Carroll is magnificent as Malvolio. This is the way we imagine Shakespeare to be performed.
The problem is that we don’t see the same level of dynamism and flair reflected consistently in all of the performances. It feels uneven. This is despite the fact this is a strong cast. Having said that, Phelan shows strong comedic ability as Aguecheek and Keith Robinson, in a return to the Belvoir stage that’s been a long time coming, is another standout with a terrific portrayal of Feste.
Michael Hankin deserves considerable commendation for a simple but beautiful set. According to Flack, inspiration has been drawn from the artistic works of Giotto, Botticelli and Bosch. That inspiration has resulted in an empty space of floors and walls being covered in block bold colours. Hankin has made brilliant use of the entire space and, coupled with Nick Schlieper’s lighting design, the visual impact of the production design is wonderful.
On the whole, Flack has provided a solid production of Twelfth Night with much to admire, but there’s something more needed to make this a Shakespearian production that truly stands out in 21st Australia.
TWELFTH NIGHT – SEASON DETAILS
Venue: Upstairs Theatre, Belvoir St Theatre (25 Belvoir St, Surry Hills)
Dates: Until 4 September
Times: Tuesday & Wednesday 6.30pm, Thursday & Friday 8pm, Saturday 2pm & 8pm, Sunday 5pm
Unwaged performance: 2pm Thursday 1 September
Sunday forum: 3pm 4 September
Tickets: *Full from $72, Seniors/Industry/Group $62, Concession $49, 30 Down $47, Student Saver $37
*Belvoir’s ticket prices can be dynamically adjusted either up or down without notice. This can apply to a small number of tickets in response to demand for a specific performance date or time.
To purchase tickets, click here