Directed by Heather Fairbairn, Bell Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, is a romantic comedy about mistaken identity that transcends gender, truth and time. Make of it what you will.
The show opens to an oceanic soundtrack, replete with thunder and lightning. A crimson-clad pianist introduces the audience to Sarah Blasko’s haunting compositions. This is, of course, Feste (Tomáš Kantor), the androgynous jester whose melancholic singing and witty wordplay frames the interlocked journeys of separated twins, Viola and Sebastian.
‘If music be the food of love, play on,’ sounds the famous opening line, as lovesick Duke Orsino (Garth Holcome) appears centre stage. As the plot unfolds, the audience witnesses Viola-disguised-as-Cesario (Alfie Gledhill), fall for Orsino, who is courting Countess Olivia (Ursula Mills), who accidentally marries Sebastian/Viola (Isabel Burton) believing him/her to be Cesario/Viola.
Malvolio becomes Malvolia for this production, strikingly played by Jane Montgomery Griffiths, who brings dimension, pathos and a perfectly executed soliloquy to a notoriously unlikeable character. Keith Agius is hilarious as lecherous drunkard, Sir Toby Belch, whose chemistry with Andrew (Mike Howlett) is highly entertaining. Kantor is a mesmerising Feste, communicating masterfully through music and movement, drawing ironic attention to the other characters’ conflicts with wordplay as both sword and shield. Feste’s observant centrality separates the fool from the fooled and the foolish.
This modern yet faithful interpretation alternates between sustained dramatic tension and clever comedic joy, revelling in reversals from male to female, grief to love, lost to found, and illusion to truth. The lonely humiliation of Malvolia stands in stark contrast to the joy of happy couples, as the climactic moment of revelation reconciles a variety of literal and figurative opposites.
Combining historical and contemporary design elements, Charles Davis’ costumes evoke the illusion of timelessness. From the Scottish highlands aesthetic of Toby Belch, to Feste’s red boots and Elizabethan ruff, every character is visually represented with emphasis on theme and characterisation – sans period-specificity – by virtue of an eclectic blending of styles.
In Act I, Countess Olivia’s dramatic mourning veil cuts a harsh but mysterious shape as she conceals her affectionate potential beneath an armour of grief, symbolically cast aside upon the meeting of one to whom she might connect. Her flowery Act V dress, on the other hand, is as bright as her blossoming love. The colourful Andrew and servant Maria are aptly clad throughout. However, the standout costume of this production is undoubtedly Malvolia’s subversive cross-gartered apparel.
The poetic imagery of Shakespearean language is physically present in Davis’ set design, with the reconstruction of set pieces being as transformative as any other facet of the production, from the bare branches of Act I to the lovers’ bower of the final scene. Feste’s aurally and visually stunning performances of Blasko’s songs augment and underline the overall narrative. Toby and Feste’s musical face-off with Malvolia is utter perfection, as is the unconventionally arresting use of an upright piano. Atmospheric synergy reverberates between Verity Hampson’s lighting and David Bergman’s sound design, alongside the rumbles of thunder and flashes of lightning that open and close the play.
Bawdy humour and phallic gags abound in this playful exploration of love, which unfolds through the concealment of identity and truth. Playing into the inherent humour and timeless resonance of Shakespeare’s most gender-bending comedy, this Twelfth Night achieves greatness, and thrusts it upon an appreciative audience.
Mandurah Performing Arts Centre
Director: Heather Fairbairn
Set and Costume Designer: Charles Davis
Lighting Designer: Verity Hampson
Composer: Sarah Blasko
Sound Designer: David Bergman
Sound Associate: Daniel Herten
Fight and Intimacy Director: Nigel Poulton
Choreographer: Elle Evangelista
Voice Coach: Jack Starkey-Gill
Cast: Jane Montgomery Griffiths, Keith Agius, Isabel Burton, Alfie Gledhill, Amy Hack, Garth Holcombe, Mike Howlett, Tomáš Kantor, Chrissy Mae, Ursula Mills
Twelfth Night is touring nationally until 19 November 2023.