Eamon Flack wrangles a large cast in Shakespeare's comedy of mistaken identity and debauchery
Twelfth Night, or What You Will, has never really ever pretended to be anything except sweet, silly relief from the mundane heartache of everyday living. Written in 1601, it’s one of Shakespeare’s looser comedies, and in 2016, directed by Belvoir’s Artistic Director Eamon Flack, it seems to emphasise the silly while neglecting the sweet.
Twins Viola (Nikki Shiels) and Sebastian (Amber McMahon) are shipwrecked onto the coast of Illyria. Each believe the other has perished. Viola disguises herself as a eunuch named Cesario so she has a little agency in the world, working for Count Orsino (Damien Ryan); her main task is to woo Olivia (Anita Hegh) on his behalf. Of course, she falls for Orsino and Olivia falls for her, and when Olivia’s suitor, Sir Andrew Augecheek (Anthony Phelan), egged on by perpetual drunk Sir Toby Belch (John Howard) and clownish hanger-on Fabian (also Amber McMahon), challenges her to a duel, its Sebastian who eventually fights him. Chuck in a prank-the-prig subplot as Olivia’s servant Maria (Lucia Mastrantone) convinces Malvolio (Peter Carroll) that their lady is in love with him so he’ll make a fool of himself, and an actual Fool, Feste, (Keith Robinson) who is wiser than the lot of them, and you have a madcap piece of work that truly believes in love.
Flack’s production careens wildly from sincerity to slapstick and back again, and that inconsistency comes to serve as the foundation of the production, which, unfortunately, means that you can never quite trust it. Shiels’ Viola has a likable, readily emotional aspect – close to tears when cornered and kind underneath her youthful bluster – but her sweetness seems out of sorts with Toby Belch’s relentlessly comic imbibing and the sudden way Hegh’s Olivia sheds her dignified romanticism to throw herself at her new love. The romantic rumblings underscoring Olivia’s interactions with Orsino are barely there and truly missed – Twelfth Night needs that kind of real feeling to ground it. The expansive nature of Michael Hankin’s set (colour blocked to represent sky and ground) compels the characters to come apart and together, apart and together, which lends the staging an agreeable dynamism, if not consistency.
Carroll’s insect-like Malvolio, sour-faced and stick-legged in bright yellow tights, and Robinson’s Feste, the world-weary Fool for hire, are the best things onstage, though their antics often veer too dark for this largely bright, largely carefree story. When most of its feelings are negative ones, and when pranks seem cruel (the repercussions of Maria’s forged love letter to Malvolio feel unusually harsh here), it’s harder to appreciate the light-hearted tom foolery and glimmerings of true love built into the text. (And it’s odd to miss those things when Flack has kept almost the entire script intact from its first Folio published in 1623).
Still, Carroll is a master of comedy and a natural in Shakespearean language. One lift of his arms can incite uproarious laughter from the audience. And Robinson, returning to the stage after a decade long absence due to illness, performing in a wheelchair, acts as the voice of reason on stage, and as a conduit between the audience and the text’s outmoded language and references. Breaking the fourth wall, he dismisses a joke as unfunny now, saying it wasn’t really funny in the 1600s either – this cynical departure draws long bouts of laughter. Feste’s songs are sung in this production by Emele Ugavule, who also appears as Sebastian’s loving protector Antonio; her soulful tone suggests the sorrow that lives in the shadow of humour.
This is an undeniably lively and funny production, but it’s at odds with itself by favouring contemporary dark comedy over the show’s sweeter moments, like the twins’ eventual reunion and their growing love stories. It might not be dramatically satisfying, as a production or as a programming decision in 2016, but there’s plenty to enjoy.