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‘Twelfth Night’ Review: A Climactic Twist of Shakespeare’s Classic

Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre’s production of Shakespeare’s timeless comedy, Twelfth Night, places the Bard’s text in a coastal bar, and frontlines the drama’s subtextual ruminations on grief and loneliness.


“If music be the food of love, play on”- Orsino, Twelfth Night 1.1.1


Thus begins Shakespeare’s famous late-career, often-times melancholic comedy of lost twins, mistaken identity, loads of gay and bisexual yearning, and ill-plotted revenge schemes. Featuring one of the Bard’s most memorable fools –Feste – the play is one of Shakespeare’s better remembered comedies and one of his most adapted.

Cast of 'Twelfth Night' at Regent's Park Open Air Theatre. Photography by Richard Lakos.

In 2012, the Globe put on a top-notch adaptation of the text with an all-male cast, which saw Mark Rylance taking on the role of Countess Olivia. A National Theatre production had the fabulous Tamsin Greig essay the role of Malvolio – this time as Malvolia – further heightening the queer undercurrents of the source text. Each of these adaptations, some better than the others, has only cemented the status of Twelfth Night as not only one of Shakespeare’s most loved plays, but also one of his most timelessly relevant ones.

 

My first encounter with the text was way back in middle-school, when I sneakily watched a boot-legged copy of John Madden’s Shakespeare In Love. The film ends with Gwyneth Paltrow’s Viola taking off for the New World, as a heartbroken Shakespeare played by the deliciously sexy Joseph Fiennes begins writing what he claims to be a paean to lost love — a text that the film suggests morphs into what we today know as Twelfth Night. When I finally read the play in my fourth semester of university, the melancholic stirrings of Madden’s quasi-fictional work stayed at the back of my head. For, while there was much fun to be had in the play’s witty repartee, there was an unshakeable, buoyant sense of sadness that floated through the story which seemed to creep up your back and simply refuse to let go of its hold until you had it settle down in your lap. Which is partially, perhaps, to do with the play’s own full title which stands as Twelfth Night, Or What You Will.

Harry Waller as Curio. Photography by Richard Lakos.

In the hands of Owen Horsley, who directs this lovely and surprisingly moving adaptation, the court and strange country of Illyria are replaced by a coastal town and a queer bar called "Olivia’s." The set-design by Basia Binkowska is simple, yet suggestive. The cross-sectional view that we get of the bar itself shows us the bar’s signage in reverse, deliberately throwing off audience members. As we see ‘Olivia’s’, now spelt backwards and in lateral inversion, we realize the anagrammatic joke at the heart of the text. Rearrange the letters of her name, and voilà, you have Viola! The letter-bending potential of this fabulous set-design visually suggests the even more bizarre, gender-bending romances that are about to come our way over the next three hours.

 

While jazz is available aplenty within the walls of the bar, ‘Olivia’s’ is a place stuck in time. It is a bar populated by drag queens (Sir Toby) and queers (Sir Andrew Aguecheek). In the hands of Horsley, this bunch of absolute misfits become a strong metaphor for what forms a queer, chosen family.


They are all led by the matriarch Olivia (played to perfection by Anna Francolini) who remains in a self-imposed mourning following the death of her brother. She spends this time religiously spurning the advances of Duke Orsino, who stands madly in love with her. Francolini brings a Miss Havisham-like quality to her portrayal of Olivia; this is a character that is trapped in a prison of her own making. And while you feel sorry for her grief, there is ample reason to grudge her for the acts of small cruelty and indifference she doles out on her family members.

Anna Francolini as Olivia. Photography by Richard Lakos.

Enter the ship-wrecked and very lost Viola (Evelyn Miller), who ignites a spark of passionate desire in the hearts of both Orsino and Olivia, in her cross-dressed embodiment of the pageboy Cesario. As the play veers back and forth between this burgeoning love triangle, we see plenty of side arcs, involving plots to overthrow the Puritanical seriousness of Malvolio (played by a lovely Richard Cant), the hilarious—but often tedious—comic adventures of Feste (Julie Legrand), and the other characters who populate the bar.

 

Horsley’s adaptation tells us nothing that has not been told before. Yet, even when the comedy tracks seem to tickle the bones of impatience in your body, it is the crackling chemistry between the lead actors that keeps us going. Miller has a meekness to her frame that she brings to fabulous use in the confession scenes with Orsino and Viola. There is a palpable frustration in her scenes with Olivia that only further cushions the yearning she brings in her back and forth with Orsino. But, so well calibrated is her performance that Shakespeare’s dense verse never veers into the territory of melodrama.


A similar electric intensity is seen in the scenes between Antonio (Nicholas Karimi) and Sebastian (Andro Cowperthwaite) which eventually leads to one of the most fulfilling climactic twists I have seen in a Shakespearean adaptation in a while. As the audience pulled out of Regent’s Park, the air was abuzz with excitement as loyalists of the Bard’s text debated the implications of the final scene, and the way it spun the queer subtext of the play right on its head.

Evelyn Miller as Viola. Photography by Richard Lakos.

But the biggest achievement, in my humble opinion, is the brute, grieving force of the closing image of the play. As everyone deserts and a splendid jazzy reiteration of Feste’s swan song begins playing, Horsley presents us with the gutting image of Olivia, Feste, Sir Toby, Sir Andrew and a thwarted Malvolio huddled around a single table, staring at the ash-filled urn of Olivia’s long-deceased brother.


There is a haunting loneliness to this final scene, which urges us to reinterpret the play as a beautifully calibrated meditation on grief and its seeming permanence. The decapacitating force of loneliness closes in on everyone watching; even as one leaves the space of the theatre arena into the darkness of Regent’s Park, you are left wondering what to do with this timeless Shakespearean comedy. Perhaps there is something wickedly absurd about grief indeed — but if the creators can make it unfold over three hours in such camply glory, then play on!


 

Edited by Georgia Gibson, Theatre Editor.

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