Back in 2010, Bell Shakespeare’s national tour of Twelfth Night was a revelation for me. Set in the aftermath of the (then) recent Victorian bushfires, the characters emerged out of the blackness, exhausted and covered in soot, and proceeded to tell each other (and us) a story, assuming the identities and roles of the characters in Shakespeare’s play. Set around a giant pile of clothes and cardboard boxes – a refuge centre, we assumed – director Lee Lewis delighted in the playful theatricality of disguise, the simple ingenuity of switching identities at the drop of a hat, and the joy and aliveness that is never far away from the very tangible sorrow and heartbreak that sits at the core of all Shakespearean tragedy. Ending with a beautifully effervescent dance to ‘Walking on Sunshine,’ it was hard not to be moved by the panache, verve and relish in theatrical delight with which the production revelled. But then I saw Sport for Jove’s Twelfth Night and, well, I think the two are in their own ways masterpieces of their craft.
Written in 1601, Twelfth Night draws from the deep well-spring of many of Shakespeare’s comedies – twins (or siblings) separated by a disaster and then brought together by a twist of fate – and spins it into a heady tale of reflections and refractions, mirrors and echoes, love given and unsought, lost and found. The very idea of doubles or mirrors ripples through the fabric of Shakespeare’s plot and language and characters, and it’s a curiously contemporary examination into the old adage (from the very quotable Hamlet, no less) that “the clothes maketh the man.”
Set upon the same white disc on which All’s Well That Ends Well unfolds, (the two are playing in repertory until 12th April), Damien Ryan’s Twelfth Night is a revival of his celebrated production from his 2012/2013 outdoor season. As it opens, we see the inhabitants of
scattered around the ocean, on the jetty, on a raised pontoon, sunning
themselves, basking in the sunlight, in the music and the holiday humour which
has descended upon them. One of them jumps into the water – an ingenious use of
a blue disc of parachute-silk – and emerges, soaking wet. Music plays, and
Orsino, a preening fellow in black Speedos, delivers the immortal first speech
in such a way that makes you wonder at how apt it seems to this context. A
weather report delivers the news of a storm brewing, one of Shakespeare’s
favourite plot-device tempests, and the ‘ocean’ bucks and heaves as three
passengers emerge on the deck of a wave-tossed ship, drenched, fighting for
their lives. The parachute flies away and… “We are in Illyira, lady.” It is
such a beautifully conceived production – designed by Anna Gardiner, lit by
Toby Knyvett, sound designed by David Stalley, and composed by Christopher
Harley – that for it’s almost three hours’ duration, you really do feel as
though you are on a summer holiday by the seaside, sometime in the not too
distant past of the Sixties.
The cast here, as in All’s Well That Ends Well, are all superb and are a true ensemble. It’s so hard to pick the best moments or the most outstanding performances in a properly-produced Shakespeare production. Abigail Austin’s Viola (and Viola-as-Cesario) is perhaps somewhat less of the delight that she is normally portrayed as, but it is only because of the reality of her situation, and full credit to Austin and Ryan for this – she is grieving for her lost, presumed drowned, brother, and finds herself in a strange land, thrust into the middle of quite a complicated series of events. Naturally, she would be confused, frustrated, bemused, but underneath it is the joy and freedom at figuring herself out, at finding her brother again at the end, at loving who she wants, loving how she wants, being herself in whatever form she feels comfortable in. Anthony Gooley’s Orsino is a bit of a peacock, at first preening himself on the pontoon, then always asking about what Olivia thinks of him, how Olivia received his tokens, &c; his realisation at the end that he was in fact in love with Viola the whole time is not so much an ‘I knew it!’ moment as it is a moment of self-realisation that perhaps love and attraction isn’t always as clear-cut as we have been led to believe. Similarly, Megan Drury’s Olivia is all at once filled with a girlish glee and a strong rebuttal of her own emotions. At the conclusion, she is perhaps relieved that in Viola she has gained a sister (through marrying Viola’s brother, Sebastian) and finds a way to fill the ache of sibling absence. Robin Goldsworthy’s Malvolio is a very stiff-upper-lip fellow, bespectacled and monstrously clad in his yellow cross-gartered tights, somewhat reminiscent of Burn Gorman’s characters. As mentioned before, the gulling of Malvolio by Sir Toby, Sir Andrew, Maria and Fabian (here, Fabienne) is both as monstrously cruel as it is torturously delicious and incorrigible. James Lugton’s Sir Toby and Mike Pigott’s Sir Andrew are a lanky pair of knaves, fond of a drink and a layabout, not quite seeing the point in ever doing anything at all to pass the time. While they form the perfect quartet of conspirators, each as rascally as the others, they do see the error of their ways and in their own ways, repent at the end.
Twelfth Night is often noted for its songs and here, with Christopher Harley’s haunting tunes, Tyran Parke’s voice rings out clear and pure. More often than not sung a capella, Parke has a hint of a young Toby Schmitz about his Feste, and it makes his songs all the more poignant, just that little bit more melancholic and elegant, because of his cheekiness and warmth; it is Shakespeare’s genius as a writer and lyricist just as much as it is Harley’s skill as a composer that they all sound and work as beautifully as they do within the broader aesthetic context of Ryan’s production and the play.
Shakespearean comedy exists on a knife-edge between joy and sadness, light and darkness. In Twelfth Night, there is a deep-seated melancholy, an undercurrent of unrest and despair, that sits on the obverse side of every ebullient moment. In many ways, this is characteristic of the Saturnalia, the carnivalesque, where everything is inverted, the rich become poor, and the servants become masters. Malvolio is in many ways emblematic of this inversion – the fools (Feste, as well as Sirs Toby and Andrew, Maria and Fabienne) become empowered to torment and tease their master Malvolio, until he swears to be “revenged on the whole pack of [them].” And while we do laugh at Malvolio’s plight, we also feel sorry for him, we sympathise with his desperate desire – need – to be loved, and we thrill at the possibility of one day getting his revenge.
Under Ryan’s direction, there is again a clarity and a robust contemporaneity, that belies the text’s four-hundred year old history. Ryan loses nothing of Shakespeare’s power, dramatic urgency, or elegance, none of the exuberance that characterises and cascades throughout the fabric of this play, and it is as much a reflection on his skill as a director as it is on the cast and crew that it feels as fresh, immediate, and riveting as it does. To list every moment of unexpected delight in this production would be ineffectual, but underneath the muscularity of Ryan’s direction and the robust understanding of [the] play inherent to every scene, there is a delight that is never far away. I do want to mention a device Ryan employs here and in All’s Well That Ends Well to great effect: preceding each half of the play, Ryan stages an ‘overture’ (for want of a better word), that foreshadows and prefigures the action in the ensuing portion of the play. Before Act One, we see an idyllic sea-side scene, but there is also the urge and or temptation to show off to and in front of the others, to try and impress them. Before Act Two, we find ourselves in a bustling marketplace, full of traders, hawkers and merchants, and we find old friends and come to resolutions. There is also a beautiful (and subtle) moment where Viola/Cesario and Sebastian both try on identical hats from the same stall at the same archway – a flesh-and-blood mirror, which they of course are as twins. Each instance is poetic, beautifully staged and sets the tone perfectly for the following half. As with Helena in All’s Well That Ends Well, the character of Viola is an agent of change, just as Nora is in Ibsen’s The Doll’s House, which Sport for Jove are producing later in the year. As Ryan writes in the program, “Viola and
are peerless in the ability to
‘persuade’ those around them, to enchant with their verbal music.” “They move
others but are never stone themselves,” writes critic Jonathan Bate.
“[Shakespeare’s] women give – of their selves, their wit and their courage.” Helena
The magic which Damien Ryan has worked in this repertory season is wondrous and yet seems effortless – by staging these two plays with intelligence, clarity and dexterity, he has proved their timelessness and immediacy over and again, and it’s not just every director who can do that. And while there are perplexing questions at the heart of both All’s Well and Twelfth Night, questions which have no easy or immediate answer, Twelfth Night asks you to love as yourself and give yourself, to have who or what you will, and perhaps we could learn a thing or two from that. After all, Shakespeare was never writing about hetero or homosexual attraction, but about love. If Shakespeare’s words are verbal music, and music is the food of love, then I guess the only thing left to say is… play on.
Theatre playlist: 18. Gay Pirates, Cosmo Jarvis