Twelfth Night ~ theatre notes

Friday, August 13, 2004

Twelfth Night

Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare, directed by David Freeman, designed by Dan Potra, lighting by Nigel Levings. Bell Shakespeare Company at the Arts Centre Playhouse to 21 August, Canberra Theatre Centre 25 August to 11 September, Illawarra Performing Arts Centre Wollongong 15 to 18 September, Sydney Opera House 23 September to 6 November, Orange Civic Theatre 10 to 13 November.

Twelfth Night is a confection supposedly written for Queen Elizabeth I and performed on Twelfth Night, the last day of Yule, which was traditionally celebrated with plays and mumming. Shakespeare whipped up a syllabub of gender-bending, drunken foolery and loutish mockery, punctuated by some exquisite speeches and haunting songs. It's a charming froth to sweeten the end of the midwinter season, and while it doesn't make a lot of sense, it does make a lot of theatre.

David Freeman, directing his first Australian production since he left these shores for Europe more than 30 years ago, is not shy of its sheer theatricality. Instead of forcing a leaden metaphor onto the hapless play, "updating" it by making it "relevant", Freeman permits Twelfth Night to play in a purely theatrical space which exists only in the imaginations of the actors and the audience. Any pandering to the literal is off the menu, and the comedy, released into the absurd, takes wings. And it's gloriously, bracingly vulgar: my inner groundling was tickled into irresponsible happiness. If there had been orange pips to spit my pleasure, I would have spat them.

However, Twelfth Night is not just a play of bawdy jokes and pratfalls: like all Shakespeare's comedies, it has its own brand of enchantment. The famous opening lines in which Orsino declares his love for Olivia, surely some of the loveliest in Shakespeare's lexicon, set the tone:

If music be the food of love, play on;
Give me excess of it, that, surfeiting,
The appetite may sicken, and so die.
That strain again! it had a dying fall:
O, it came o'er my ear like the sweet sound,
That breathes upon a bank of violets,
Stealing and giving odour! Enough; no more:
'Tis not so sweet now as it was before.

Signalling his intentions early, Freeman changes Shakespeare's beginning. Instead, focusing on the twins Viola and Sebastian, Freeman swaps the first and second scenes, and opens with Viola (Caroline Craig) washed up on the shores of Illyria and vowing to dress as a man and serve the man she loves, Orsino (Julian Garner), in order to win his heart. This permits a spectacular curtain raiser, with a storm and real rain - and it also makes a neat rhyme with the fool's closing song ("the rain it raineth every day"), when the rain machine is again called into action. Orsino's famous speech comes second, and is undercut by a joke - Orsino is hooked up to an i-pod. It gets a good laugh, but I still missed the poetry.

There's no doubting the success of the comedy. This is character clowning as good as it gets; Sir Toby Belch (John Batchelor, in a suit that gives the irresistable impression that it must have grease on the collar), his brainless sidekick, Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Philip Dodd, replendent in black leather jacket and stove-pipe jeans) and Jonathan Hardy's Feste (in various states of tank-top-and-shorts undress) are the avatars of low humour, ably helped in ridiculousness by Billie Browne as Malvolio. The highlight of the night is the scene where Malvolio reads the forged letter which purportedly exposes Olivia's love for him, overheard by three conspirators unconvincingly posing as bushes. Here Freeman takes the unreality of the theatrical aside and pushes it to an extreme of absurdity, with Malvolio lounging against the very foliage that eavesdrops on him.

I couldn't help wondering whether the hilarity really had to be at the expense of the play's poetry: enchantment is as germane to this play as is laughter, and one of Shakespeare's masteries is that he saw neither quality as cancelling out the other. And it seems to me that there is a prurience in denying beauty as much as in the editing out of obscenity. Outrageous bum-flashing is, after all, always going to appeal to the hoi polloi, including me: and the introduction of a gratuitously Strine song after the interval, to underline the Australian-ness of this production, our necessity to recognise "ourselves" in it, made me suspect that the obscenity was pandering to the audience, rather than disrupting its expectations into delight. It's a fine line, after all.

For this is a Twelfth Night in which the poetry is strictly sidelined. I ought to explain that by "poetry" I do not mean a reverential rendering of the Bard's language: far from it. It is merely to remember that Twelfth Night is a romance as much as it is a farce, and that part of its power is in how, however lightly, it touches the heart. The despair of exile and alienation, the erotic obsessions of romantic love, the grief of loss, are all made minor themes, occasions only for the joke of the play. And consequently, the play's meanings are muddied: the romantic scenes have an air of confusion, unlike the comedy, in which every action is absolutely clear. For all the production's strengths as popular theatre, and even Caroline Craig's appeal as a lively and charming Viola, this is a considerable diminishment of the play's enchantment.

The way into this enchantment is, as Orsino's opening speech indicates, through music. Much has been made of James Reyne, of Australian Crawl fame, composing the songs for this production, and so it is a little disappointing to report that the music mostly amounts to fairly indifferent balladeering. Freeman has gone for a cracked instrument, malodorous rather than melodious, which is an idea not without potential. But in practise the songs are, like the loveliness and feeling of the poetry, again undercut. It's not until the finale, sung off-key by Jonathan Hardy, that this decision pays off: its plain rendering exposes the bones of the poetry, its sour-sweet melancholy filling the theatre with a true poignancy.

The costumes are eclectically contemporary, and Dan Potra's design is an intriguing and practical cross between a farce and the traditional Shakepearean stage. To reinforce the artifice of the action, the stage is dominated by a huge picture frame, which is itself a stage within the stage, with doors right and left that can be forced open and slammed shut with proper comic effect. I've seen more elegant designs by Potra, but this serves the production most efficiently. For all my reservations, it's by far the best Bell Shakespeare production I've seen, and delivers Shakespeare defiantly and greedily alive.

Bell Shakespeare

No comments: