Twelfth Night (Sumner Theatre, Melbourne)

It’s easy to assume that Twelfth Night is a piece of Christmas frippery, and it certainly sounds benign – as fairytales go I mean. You forget how sour it turns. You forget what an out and out thief is Toby Belch, how ruthless are the machinations visited on the hapless Andrew Aguecheek and even the less-hapless, total-dick-frankly, Malvolio.

But it’s all in good fun.

On Twelfth Night (the celebration, not the play) things are supposed to get turned arse over. Someone gets to be ‘Lord of Misrule’, and someone else gets to be ‘Queen-for-a-Day’ (they find a pea or a bean in their pudding, or something, or maybe they eat one), or maybe it’s the other way round.

Anarchy Rules.

Excellent.

Of course anarchy is the new black now, but, whatever.

In Twelfth Night (the play not the celebration), identical twins (identical except for one being a boy and a girl but so close otherwise) Viola and Sebastian are torn apart in a storm at sea. Each believes the other to have drowned.

Viola, washing up in Illyria, disguises herself as a boy (as her brother, effectively), names herself Cesario, and goes to work for a rich bachelor named Orsino (with whom she falls in love). On his behalf, she woos a young woman Olivia who also has just lost a beloved brother (and father, actually). It’s for his sake that Olivia has vowed to remain hidden, ‘veiled’ from sight so she might ‘preserve’ the love she felt. Of course, Olivia falls for Cesario/Viola.

So it’s one of the ‘breeches’ shows, where a girl has to disguise herself as a boy.

And it’s all about the difference between seeming and being.

Though the ultimate joke – that the girl pretending to be a boy is really a boy pretending to be a girl pretending to be a boy – is lost on us, because she’s not.

Here’s what you don’t expect in a production of Twelfth Night:

Lights up on an open grave.

There’s even a pile of dirt.

At the head, a Priest; on either side in formal groupings, the mourners all-in-black. Behind them is a series of two metre tall candlesticks glowing gold in the mist.

A suitably (beautiful) dirge (music by Kate Miller-Heidke and Keir Nuttall, musical director Ian MacDonald) is sung (they rip the text off – from Cymbeline I think, so at least they’ve stayed ‘in the family’ as it were).

I’m thinking: Wow! Of course! so much of this play centres on death! This really grounds it. Olivia will make a lot more sense now, since it’ll seem so new, so raw…Then Viola and A Sea Captain are pushed up from the depths of the ocean/tomb/trap, and there’s a distant vista of Illyria painted at the back of the stage and that looks pretty good too…

So the opening is a new take on an old play, but the inventiveness stops at the water’s edge.

There are a lot of songs in Twelfth Night. A lot. I’d forgotten how many. In this production, maybe too many. It’s not that they’re bad, they’re not, they’re good. Maybe I’d buy the album. But they slow the show down a hell of a lot. It sags. 

That it doesn’t sink is due to the B plot, which doesn’t so much keep the thing afloat as overbalance the craft. But enough with the seafaring metaphors.

Olivia’s uncle Toby Belch (or Fart, as his passing of winds seems to suggest) seems to have a much expanded role in this production, with text from excised character, Fabian, and I wonder if that’s why this part of the play seems so much more central than I’ve experienced previously. Sill, it’s a consistent portrayal in slow-cooked spite from MTC stalwart Richard Piper. He’s aided and abetted by Olivia’s serving woman, Maria (a brisk Tamsin Carroll) and the ‘clown’, Feste (Colin Hay in fine voice) as they rob, gull and mock friend and foe alike.

It’s also buoyed by the comedic stylings of human bendy-man Frank Woodley as Andrew Aguecheek and Christie Whelan Browne as Olivia.  The latter is inexplicably frocked as Zsa Zsa Gabor in low-cut, black-feathered mourning, and ‘pushing’ in performance a little more than she needs but produces, at least, a characterisation of wit and warmth. And rocks the frock.

Screen xxxxxShot 2018-11-21 at 10.59.00 am
Lachlan Woods (above), Christie Whelan Browne, Russell Dykstra and Colin Hay in Twelfth Night. Photo by Jeff Busby.

But back to the songs.

I’ve never thought of Viola (Esther Hannaford) as a Country singer, but dang! that gal ‘ken sing. And play the autoharp. But that’s about it for her Viola.

She’s pretty well humourless, with none of the rueful self-awareness the play assumes. In fact, despite the singing chops, she’s monochromatic in her delivery of the spoken text.

Though  given her overblown Orsino (Lachlan Woods) – a thankless role, admittedly – maybe she just chucked in the towel. (I’m onto boxing now). 

He’s often played as the kind of guy who’d stalk an ex through Facebook.

Not here. Here he’s indulged his ennui so thoroughly he’s practically evanesced. It’s impossible to believe Viola (or anyone not on his immediate payroll) even particularly likes him, let alone loves.

I have seen interpretations where, after the low-ebb of ‘If music be the food of love…’ he’s managed to pull himself together; his determined pursuit of Olivia prompted, in part, by his confusion at the growing attraction he feels for Cesario, a boy!! In this production’s interpretation though, you feel that won’t be the problem. But Viola wants her I’m-on-the-couch-not-in-the-closet Freddie Mercury wanna-be (by the end of the play he’s in total rock god Gold Henry VIII costumery) regardless and there’s not a thing I, or anyone else, can say to warn her against him. 

He may be a tosser, but she thinks he’s her tosser.

There’s an effort to go the full Pop-up Globe (to go one better actually as Gabriela Tylesova’s design is all pop-ups and toy-theatre like wire-hung set-elements). A rousing company song is jammed between the exit (cursing) of much abused Malvolio (Russell Dykstra)) and the Feste’s wistful song The wind and the Rain. It sits oddly here, lacking the joyful abandon of the other mob and the energy that DIY space can command. The contract here between company and audience is not nearly so egalitarian.

‘Shall we go see the relics of this town?’ queries Sebastian at one point, waving towards the unsuspecting audience. And it must be said, if the audience didn’t go nuts for this show, they nonetheless reacted warmly: it conformed to expectation.

So here’s another Simon Phillips’ blockbuster Shakespeare. It may lack the whomping bedhead and the Grand Designs indoor-barbecue-pit-thing of last year’s Macbeth, or the glasshouse skyscraper of Hamlet, but you can see the budget live on stage. If that’s your joy, party on! It feels pretty bleak to me.

Until January 5

Main image: Richard Piper as Toby Belch and Frank Woodley as Andrew Aguecheek. Photo by Jeff Busby.

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