‘But that's all one, our play is done, and we'll strive to please you every day’ Act V, Scene I, Twelfth Night
The figures hum as they wind about the stage, flowering and flaunting their colour and hippie-charm. Think The Beatles’ Yellow Submarine meets an Elizabethan court and you can imagine only part of the colour, the madness, and the pure enjoyment of watching such a vibrant piece of theatre. So begins Wils Wilson’s Twelfth Night. Set in an abandoned mansion overrun by artists, the house transforms into Illyria, transporting us to the 60s - a time of rebellion, where strict codes of the 50s were exchanged for freedom, new music, and innovative ways of expressing gender as a performative act. For a play concerned with cross-dressing and miss-matched identity, it couldn’t be more fitting. However this production also has a timeless feel, as, as if to mirror the blurring of genders within the play, the 70s and 80s are fused, allowing the designers to be wilder in creating the party scenes. The figures – they are indistinguishable as characters yet - collapse in a semi-orgiastic circle, whilst one demure character on the periphery of the action thumbs a copy of Twelfth Night. The artists are going to perform the play. The play within a play conceit, instead of subsuming the whole play in artifice, generates a natural energy which reverberates around the stage. The motif convinces us that the characters are not fabricated, but real people in suspended time enacting the play for their own entertainment. As we wonder at the unfolding of the text onto the stage, we feel our sentiment is mirrored by these ‘real’ people, who supposedly encounter each line afresh. The conceit lingers throughout the play in the form of pop-corn eating by characters on the fringes of the stage, or the way in which they employ the stage space as they push out into the audience, handing out props, probing the boundaries of theatre. The liminality of the space between actor and audience is emphasised particularly when Malvolio includes the audience in his withering accusation: ‘I’ll be revenged on the whole pack of you’.
What makes this production of Twelfth Night so exceptional is that it generates a pure love for theatre, by its very highlighting of the stage as a means of reproducing human experience. It presents the core of Shakespeare’s writing: a story transferred; orated; lived. It rejects the esoteric nature of theatre; after all, Twelfth Night is a play centred on recognition, of self and of others, and the play identifies the importance of song and staging when trying to maintain grip on the audience’s imagination. Song and dance often become rather grating tropes of recent performances of Shakespeare, with actors fumbling through lyrics and awkwardly moving in co-ordinated dance. Whether it be the freshness of the cast, or Wilson’s excellent direction, something just clicks; the music becomes the food of love and sustains the audience’s appetite for colour and live song more than has arguably ever been seen in any recent stagings of the play. As Feste says, music is a ‘simple truth’, a line which is central to our understanding of the importance of song in the play. Feste looks like he has cartwheeled out of a dream, Puck-like in his movement and insight. Played by Dylan Read, his performance shimmers, and effortlessly draws out the most belly laughs. The cast as a whole are wonderfully multifaceted, with unexpected talent; the pipe-players are a particular niche and unexpected treat, and keep the comedy kicking.
Wilson’s zany ambition works superbly with Twelfth Night to construct a production that overturns the already contemporaneously subversive play. Men stoop under doors and spandrels in their platform heels and glide around in their dresses, while women in their tailored suits command the stage. This is where Wilson’s zeal explodes, as he rejects the all-male stage of Shakespeare’s time and replaces it with a cast of brilliant performers, irrespective of gender and tradition. Colette Dalal Tchantcho, as Duke Orsino, with her perfect swaggering arrogance and Lisa Dwyer Hogg’s Olivia as the headstrong, witty lady of the house, provide just a small snapshot of this. The coming together of two women who both challenge the expectations of their gender manifests itself as a fantastic celebration of the actors’ impressive performative abilities and Wilson’s clever direction. Even Brian James O’Sullivan’s portrayal of Antonio’s final tearful exit after seeing Sebastian married to Olivia is a small nod to the ever-changing expectations of the emotionless male. In providing genuine laughs and moments of utter delight, the production comes as a powerful reminder that, paradoxically, gender must be ignored to be acknowledged. By blurring boundaries between genders, the play generates important conversation about gender and asserts that the world, or the stage in this case, will not collapse if a woman takes on a traditionally male role, or vice versa. Of course, Shakespeare did play around with this, but Wilson certainly cements it in her casting and directorial choices.
This couldn’t really be more true, for the cast are a treat. Dawn Sievewright is brash, punchy and wonderfully rampant as Lady Tobi, deflecting marvellously off Guy Hughes’ Andrew Aguecheek, who with feathers streaming off his shoulder pads and skin-tight costume, looks like he has raided ABBA’s wardrobe. All this pomp and excess contrasts brilliantly with his mincing and waning in his attempts at gaining Olivia’s love. They are delightful to watch, full technicolour to contrast Malvolio’s black and white, but their performances are also greatly considered. Usually the pair can seem like nothing more than annoying distraction to the main activity of the play, but they carry the production – elevated from being providers of comedic relief to becoming agents of revolt, challenging Malvolio’s strict house rules. Most absorbing are the moments where their effervescence dissolves, such as when Lady Tobi, denuded of her vitality, stands subdued in the debris of the party, swigging at the dregs of her bottle, an instant which exposes her reliance upon a brittle self-medication. Such glimpses of the internal thoughts of the characters glower at the corners of this tragi-comedy. For Twelfth Night opens with death; Olivia is mourning her brother; Sebastian and Viola believe each other to be dead, and unrequited love seems to be the favourite refrain. None of this setup would convince anyone that Twelfth Night is a comedy. The characters effectually all live in stasis when trying to pursue each other – it is only when they understand themselves that they can find self-renewal. The psychedelic setting created by designer Ana Inés Jabares-Pita fuels this self-exploration; she began designing the set from a study of the characters, highlighting gender identity and party culture as significant themes which allow for the hedonism, for the tricks, for the cyclical nature of love and pursuit to fizz on the stage.
Many of Shakespeare’s texts can be argued to say more, swear more, but never has a production in recent times been so instinctive, capturing the anarchy of the play so tremendously. For the regenerative effect the play has on one’s consideration of song in theatre, truly, give me excess of it.
Bethan James and Esther Bancroft, Theatre Editor