Theatre review: Twelfth Night, Sydney Opera House

This production of Shakespeare's classic gender swap comedy deliberately dramatises its tragic elements.
Twelfth Night. A dark spotlit stage features small trees in large pots, a couple of actors cuddle on. either side of the stage and a person centre stage with arm raised, wearing a white waistcoat, braces and black shorts.

In his contribution to this production’s program, Andy McLean writes that Twelfth Night is a ‘comedy disguised as a tragedy’. I am not sure that is true of every production of the play, but it is certainly true of Heather Fairbairn’s. She has made a deliberate choice to amplify the play’s tragic elements, a choice that is manifested in a few ways. She underscores the play’s extant gender ambiguities by casting Isabel Burton as Sebastian (who, when she plays Viola, is a woman playing a man playing a woman) and flipping the gender of other characters, most notably Malvolio, who becomes Malvolia. 

In Fairbairn’s words, she is attempting to ‘reinstate the dramaturgical effect of an all-male cast without having an all-male cast’. But having Jane Montgomery Griffiths playing Malvolia as a woman, rather than simply casting her as Malvolio, rather changes the dynamic of the comic subplot. Griffiths’ comic timing is magnificent in the early stages, but she is equally effective at portraying the devastating effects of the practical joke played on her by Sir Toby Belch and his compadres. 

I felt it was not just Griffiths’ performance, but also the change in Malvolio’s gender that made the cruelty of her treatment hit home more strongly here than it might in other productions. That Malvolvia’s love for Olivia is not just unrequited but, in her age, forbidden makes it hard to find her conceitedness amusing. Certainly, during the performance this reviewer attended, when she is subsequently taunted for being mad, the audience didn’t laugh, and Fairbairn clearly does not want us to. For what is supposedly a comedy, she is happy to let us sit in discomfort. 

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Perhaps the most effective part of this production is Sarah Blasko’s remarkable and sombre original score. Tomáš Kantor, as Feste, sings her arrangements wonderfully and with great expression. Again, though, the overwhelming effect is melancholic and, between this and Griffiths’ performance, the comic elements of the play – and I use the word “comic” here both in its modern sense and in the sense that the play supposedly has a happy ending – fall by the wayside. In the end, it is perhaps not so much comedy disguised as tragedy, but tragedy disguised as comedy. Though this may be the way Shakespeare intended it. After all, it is a strange choice to finish a comedy with the fool singing ‘the rain it raineth every day’. 

Twelfth Night, Bell Shakespeare
Sydney Opera House

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

Tickets: $45-$110

Twelfth Night will be performed until 19 November 2023.

Ned Hirst is a lawyer and writer based in Sydney whose work has appeared in Overland, The Australian Law Journal and elsewhere. He tweets at @ned_hirst.