An escape into laughter: First Nations Emerging Critic Carissa Lee reviews Simon Phillips’ Twelfth Night
Our theatre culture takes Shakespeare terribly seriously, even though throughout his texts it’s clear that he was a bit of a funny bugger, and a saucy one at that. So it’s a delight to see actors revelling in the absolute cheekiness that is Shakespeare in productions such as Melbourne Theatre Company’s Twelfth Night.
Simon Phillips’ production is a banquet of song, dance, frivolous costumes and beautiful sets. Twelfth Night is the story of Duke Orsino’s (Lachlan Woods) unrequited love for Olivia (Christy Whelan Browne). It gets complicated when Olivia falls in love with Cesario (Esther Hannaford), who is a woman – Viola – disguised as a man, and more complicated when Orsino begins to get a bit of a crush on Cesario. When we throw Viola’s assumed-to-be-dead twin Sebastian (Caleb Alloway) into the mix, everything goes awry. But it all works out in the end with happy pairings. For most people, anyway.
With the exception of companies like Bell that specialise in Shakespeare, it sometimes can seem as if our theatres dwell on the tragic spectrum of the Bard’s plays. How many productions of Hamlet, Macbeth, Othello and Romeo and Juliet have you seen? I sometimes wonder if audiences love to see tragedies because it feels like a properly serious night at the theatre, like Shakespeare is meant to be. If so, this ignores the dick jokes told by the Porter in Macbeth, or Hamlet making an absolute pig of himself with his “head in the lap” speech to poor Ophelia (didn’t the poor love suffer enough?), or the sexual innuendos throughout Juliet’s seemingly innocent “Wherefore art thou” speech.
Those who felt felt like they missed out on the “authentic” experience of Shakespeare with Bell’s Antony and Cleopatra’s modern costuming are going to love this production. If you like frilly collars, sword fights, men in tights and those weird puffy shorts, this is definitely the show for you. Director Simon Phillips’ curation of this comically dramatic world of hijinks offers up a strong cast who, for the most part, create a wonderful chemistry throughout the two hours and forty minutes of the evening.
It opens with the funeral of Olivia’s brother and last remaining family member. Like much of this production, this scene looks a bit like a painting: designer Gabriela Tylesova creates the world of Illryia as a vision of opulence, with the darker costuming in Olivia’s home indicating mourning, and Orsino’s palace adorned with androgynous men with flowing manes. The long-haired men in Orsino’s court was a gorgeous touch, proving useful for Viola’s disguise as Cesario, her androgyny going unnoticed in this world of beautiful men tending to the gloriously camp Orsino.
Music (composed by Kate Miller-Heidke and Keir Nuttall, and directed by Ian McDonald) is a huge part of this show. It features actors who are also musicians, most notably Men at Work’s Colin Hay in the role of Feste the Jester. Although there are many songs, it never feels excessive or gives us that musical theatre feeling of “and here is where we break into song”. This is a world where music is “the food of love” and, to some extent, the drug of choice when it comes to filling the hole in one’s heart where a lover’s affection ought to be.
The biggest lamenter of his lonely life, Woods’ Orsino, is played camp: he’s sensitive and a bit of a princess, but in such a way that you think the poor lad could do with a hug. It’s quite funny. However, the chemistry between Woods and Hannaford when Orsino begins to develop feelings for Cesario gets pretty intense in their stolen moments of forbidden closeness.
Hannaford’s Viola/Cesario is sassy, cheeky, and charismatic. She honours the moments of pain when mourning her dead brother, or in her unrequited love for Orsino. Whelan Browne is hilarious as Olivia, her comic timing impeccable. Working under the instructions of Maria (Tamsin Carroll), Olivia’s maid, who is the naughty mastermind, the vulgar Sir Toby Belch (Richard Piper), the clownish Sir Andrew Aguecheeck (Frank Woodley) and the meant-to-be mischievous Feste (Colin Hay) generate a lot of the laughter. The back-and-forth between Piper and Woodley was side-splittingly funny and watching Woodley playing off the audience and relishing his knack for physical slapstick is a total treat, I really loved it. However, Hay’s Feste can’t keep up: he often falls flat in comparison. It’s a shame because, as the bickering dynamic between Malvolio and Feste is never really established, the final revenge on Malvolio (Russell Dykstra) is completely lost.
I haven’t laughed like this while watching a Shakespeare in a long time. I would have liked to see more diverse casting, but aside from that, it was an enjoyable production with gorgeous music and a strong cast. Plays like Twelfth Night, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, As You Like it, (Cymbeline is a bit weird to be considered a comedy) and so on equalise an audience by reminding us all how to laugh. Shakespeare’s love of gender-bending, his sometimes innocent, sometimes filthy humour, give us a chance to re-learn silliness and to have a proper moment of escape. And let’s face it, we all need that.
Twelfth Night, by William Shakespeare, directed by Simon Phillips, composition by Kate Miller-Heidke, Keir Nuttall, music direction and additional composition by Ian McDonald, set and costume design by Gabriele Tylesova, lighting design by Nick Shlieper. Performed by Caleb Alloway, Roderick Cairns, Tamsin Carroll, Russell Dykstra, Esther Hannaford, Anthony Harkin, Colin Hay, Richard Piper, Alec Steedman, Christie Whelan Brown, Frank Woodley, Lachlan Woods. Twelfth Night at Southbank Theatre. Until January 5, 2019. Bookings
Audio described performances: Tuesday December 4 at 6.30pm, Saturday December 8 at 2pm
Tactile Tour At 1pm, prior to the Saturday 8 December 8 2pm performance
Open Captioning Thursday December 6 at 8pm