Bell Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night

Last night (Saturday), went out with some of the Stromlo postdocs to dinner at Lemon Grass Thai in Civic, where I had some passing good panang curry and a New Zealand Sav Blanc which fulfilled everything I’ve now come to expect of them. :) It was Chiaki Kobayashi‘s birthday, and the festive air was about to be continued by our attendance at Bell Shakespeare‘s final performance of Twelfth Night at Canberra Theatre Centre. A colleague of mine who couldn’t make it encouraged me to go, saying that his wife was very exacting in her demands of Shakespeare companies and that Bell Shakespeare were among the best.

The performance was sufficiently offbeat that I had to sleep on it before I could reliably process it. It was very challenging to watch, and while as an aficionado I enjoyed it immensely, I’m not sure in hindsight whether it was the most accessible production of the play I’d ever seen. Let me elaborate.

The action opens on a dark stage. The first sign of life is the sweep of a halogen lamp beam across a heap of discarded old clothes, empty cardboard boxes and a few bedraggled souls sitting or standing in silence. One of them tunes a TV halfheartedly to a station with intermittent reception, playing a newscast about a series of deadly bush fires sweeping some unspecified Australian province (this apparently was recorded from real newscasts delivered a couple of years ago). The sole woman on the stage, having been staring blankly at the screen, then breaks down into heaving sobs. One of the old men on the side gestures to a book from which he then starts reading:

Enter VIOLA, a Captain, and Sailors
VIOLA. What country, friends, is this?
Captain. This is Illyria, lady.
VIOLA. And what should I do in Illyria?
My brother he is in Elysium. [ … ]”

Eventually the other participants buy into the scene and start acting their parts, gradually and tentatively, as if to entertain themselves in distraction from the bleak landscape to which we the viewers have been treated. So the whole story is done as a play within a play, giving the highly minimal proceedings a roguishly “meta” feel. One is then well primed for the occasional anachronisms in speech (Malvolio: “I will baffle the shit out of Sir Toby”; Viola: “that’s bullshit, I left no ring with her”), music (Feste’s “Come away, come away death” becomes “St. James’ Infirmary Blues”, and the drunks’ “Hold thy peace, thou knave” becomes Smash Mouth’s “I Get Knocked Down”), technology (Antonio, with an eyepatch and a hook-hand simulated by an umbrella’s handle, is apprehended by helicopter), and stagecraft (to simulate strong wind during the helicopter scenes, the characters grab their clothing and flap it with their hands, as a cascading fountain of random articles of clothing is continually thrown into the air by two unseen characters).

To say nothing of gender: Olivia and Maria are both played by male actors (Maria’s bra being stuffed with old clothes from the pile), and it’s not obvious whether Olivia’s character as portrayed is meant to be a woman, or a gay man wearing a dress — either in the world of the play or the play within a play! This leads to further hilarity as the Olivia character is played with some stereotypical gay attributes, but still with disarming honesty and adroitness. Olivia’s gay courtship and marriage are treated within the world of the show as being an utterly uncontroversial parallel to an analogous straight relationship. This invites us to see Olivia’s rejection of an uber-macho Malvolio and the final reveal in Act V (Sebastian: “you would have been contracted to a maid”) with that much more sympathy, and perhaps irony also. It also gives a provocative read on Orsino’s vaguely homoerotic relationship with “Cesario”, although of course he and Viola still enthusiastically tie the knot in Act V.

The first half was somewhat haphazard and slow to build momentum, in part I think because of the weight of all the meta-layers under which the direction must have been groaning. Some notable double-castings: Orsino/Aguecheek, Toby/Sebastian, Maria/Antonio. If I hadn’t seen the play many times already, I might well have had no idea what was going on. Things picked up alarming speed after intermission, though, and the madcap energy and irresistible momentum carried the show to an entirely satisfying conclusion.

Old Feste in his bluesman’s hat and shabby coat, the frat-boy Toby and the Hispanic-maid Maria all give admirable showings. The most memorable moments to my mind, though, are those shared on stage with Malvolio, seen here as a massive, barrel-chested bar bouncer. The fruit of numerous little choices adorn his time on stage: His bark is shown to be worse than his bite when he prepares to deck Toby by wrapping his fist in tape, only to fail to deliver even after Toby marches right up and dares him to his face (“Art any more than a steward?”). His self-absorption is readily shown during the letter scene as the drunks plow into the clothes pile repeatedly, which could not but fail to attract the attention of anyone who had attention to spare; he even thanks Maria for handing him the letter, then does a double-take and turns around just as the drunks freeze into tree-shapes, limbs splayed. The “yellow stockings” become a ridiculous canary yellow Spandex cycling suit. The “dark house” becomes a corrugated cardboard refrigerator box out of which the desperate Malvolio sticks one finger through a crack when speaking. And his final tirade (“TELL – ME – WHY”, and later, “I’LL BE REVENGED – UPON – THE WHOLE – PACK – OF YOU”) dissipates into impotent rage when he finds that the gas-powered chainsaw he’s trying to start (used as Cesario’s weapon in the Cesario/Aguecheek duel) has run out of fuel. He later sullenly accepts a beer from Sir Toby, though not without giving a middle finger in return.

After the curtain call for the Shakespearean characters, we’re brought back to the meta-world as the stage goes dark, the actors doff their characters’ costumes (returning to “street clothes”) and the reports run on the snow-filled TV that the wildfires have been contained. One wonders whether Viola’s embrace of Sebastian in Act V’s denoument parallels a similar release between loved ones in this scene. I still don’t entirely understand its relevance, except perhaps to remind us that life is short and our fellow human beings sometimes hard to empathize with, and that the easing of these sufferings is the value of the arts (and the performing arts especially) in these uncertain times.

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About Richard

I'm an American scientist who is building a new life in Australia. This space will contain words about science and math, but also philosophy, policy, literature, my travels, occasional rants, all sorts of things I find strange and awesome. The views expressed in this blog do not necessarily reflect the opinions of my employer at the time (currently University of Sydney), though personally, I think they should.
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