In 2017, I have seen four productions of Twelfth Night. And Twelfth Night began as one of my least favourite plays.
The first show I saw was Shakespeare Bash’d’s production at the Monarch Tavern. Then in April I saw the Public Theater’s mobile unit production in New York. Then in June I went to Stratford, ON and saw their production of Twelfth Night. Finally, last night I saw Shakespeare in High Park’s version. Phew.
What I have discovered at the end of my Twelfth Night journey is that I really like some stuff about Twelfth Night. But I’m going to say right away that I am super biased about what I think classifies as a “good” Twelfth Night. So what I am going to do is go through each of the four Twelfth Night productions and think about what I found interesting about each and how I ended up as a girl who sorta likes Twelfth Night (maybe?).
#1 – Shakespeare Bash’d
Shakespeare Bash’d was a great introduction as my first live production of the play. Up until this year the only version I had watched was the filmed version of Des McAnuff’s 2011 production from Stratford featuring groovy tunes and a suspended fridge. What I really liked about the Bash’d production was the clarity of text. It was a straightforward interpretation, easy to understand, and the acting from the entire cast felt very earnest. It was also a strong ensemble and the cast functioned incredibly well as a team. Furthermore, the staging was well-done and made good use of the Monarch Tavern’s environment. I’m always tentative about the ally staging of a show but it worked nicely and didn’t feel too ping-pongy. They also did have a more traditional playing space at the top of the bar though which I think alleviated some of the constraints of ally staging. One of the most exciting moments was the sword fight scene between Sir Toby and Sebastian. Although somewhat terrifying because wow they sure were close to the audience.
The production was directed by James Wallis who gave the show a 1920s bohemian feel. I especially loved the costumes for Feste, Olivia, and Maria. It felt like the scene in Moulin Rouge when the camera zooms through the streets of Paris when Christian first arrives. I thought this framework functioned well within the spirit of the story although I wouldn’t say it changed the story at all. It just lived within the plot and functioned alongside the themes. Overall, this was just a neat and tidy production that was enjoyable and clear and a good start to my journey. I’m also probably forgetting tons because I saw it at the beginning of the year and my memory is terrible. Reason #1 why I should write these things immediately.
(Sidenote: definitely attended the same show as Antoni Cimolino and I definitely spent half the show watching the play and the other half watching his reaction to the show. I’m so sorry for being so creepy).
#2 – Public Works (at the Public Theater)
First off, this show entirely changed how I saw Twelfth Night and I am so jealous that America and the UK have such incredible Shakespeare all the time. You guys are blessed.
I saw the production at the Public Theater for free which I just love considering it deserved all my money. The show was directed by Saheem Ali and conceived as a part of the Public Works mobile unit which meant the show could travel around to different locations and make Shakespeare accessible. The show opened with a single blue sheet in the middle of the stage. There was a hole cut into the middle where Sebastian, Viola, and the captain stood with other cast members holding the sheet on the edges creating the waves of the storm. Viola and Sebastian are sucked under water with the sheet now above their heads and we watch as they are torn apart from each other by the water. It was literally just a blue sheet but this was some theatre magic that was visually interesting and made the story completely clear.
The design elements were all clever too. It felt incredibly beach-y (which is partly due to the fact the curtains were blue where I saw it) and the costumes all reflected that. They had a multipurpose cart that carried along tunes and props. They were even able to create a pool by putting Sir Toby and Sir Andrew on inflatable pool floaties with scooter boards underneath them so they could move around. The music was lively and fun and Feste was so entertaining. There was a great moment where Feste accidentally grabs Viola/Cesario’s chest when they collide and realizes Viola’s true identity.
I have realized since watching all these Twelfth Night’s the two characters that can make or break a show for me are Olivia and Malvolio. I am so biased here but I love them. The Public Works production featured the best Olivia I have ever seen played by Danaya Esperanza. She was sassy and overdramatic. I can only describe her as the type of person who says they hate drama when they live for the drama. To match the sassiness of this Olivia was her man-servant Malvolio (who wore a pj set of her face pasted all over it).
What worked most about this production for me was the amount they leaned into the inherent weirdness of the plot. The ending of the show featured a sexually confused Olivia who felt herself attracted to both Viola and Sebastian and unsure of who to kiss. This came alongside an Orsino dealing with a similar stress. In my ideal production, everyone in Twelfth Night is queer. Everyone kisses everyone. Everyone gets some smooches.
Now back to Malvolio. I liked this Malvolio because he was serious in his devotion to Olivia and power but not in the typical “this man takes himself too seriously” way. He wasn’t dark and broody. This Malviolio just assumed he was better than everyone and was going to pay for it later. I love Malvolio as a character generally because every time I watch I end up feeling bad for him. I can watch a show and think he is a jerk and then still end up feeling really bad for him at the end. I also like his journey because it is incomplete at the end. He vows revenge and you know he means it but yet the end features music and dancing. So how happy can the ending really be for everyone else?
The best part of the show though was how much fun it was. It took a lot of risks that pulled off because it worked with what was in the text while injecting a lot of personality into it. Shakespeare can be fun, smart, and bold.
#3 – Stratford Festival
Oh Stratford. How I do love you but yet you can also cause me such pain. I might have enjoyed this version a lot more if I had not just experienced the Public Works show right before it. I should start by saying that it was a solid show. I choose the words solid carefully because this production just carried weight with it. Similar to the Bash’d production, the Stratford show focused intently on the character’s playing the emotions truthfully. When a character was sad, it wasn’t funny-sad, it was just sad. However, the Stratford Twelfth Night felt much more like a drama than a comedy minus the clown characters.
The feeling of it being a drama partly stemmed from the bleak world of the set and costumes. Aside from little pops of colour, everything was very black. I did like the metallic tree that could transition between seasons though. The set was also decorated with those bowls that when you circle around the rim with an instrument it makes a haunting sound. I have no idea what they are called. I really liked what they added musically to the show but I thought they looked a little off as a part of the design. Brent Carver played them as Feste and was really fantastic in the role. I’m also just a fan of his since seeing him in Groundling’s The Winter’s Tale.
I loved the Maria/Sir Toby/Sir Andrew combo with the fabulous Lucy Peacock, Geraint Wyn Davies, and Tom Rooney, but I didn’t really have any doubt about that surefire group. Honestly, I could see a Twelfth Night where Tom Rooney plays every character and I would be pretty happy.
However, not even they could save this production for me. I was just bored. And I hate saying that but it’s true. It wasn’t bad but it didn’t excite me.
(Thank god I’m a nobody and Martha Henry will never read this)
#4 – Shakespeare in High Park
Heading into this production, I was feeling a little dismayed. I thought it was going to be another example of a cool context being slapped on top of a Shakespeare show and they call it a day. I thought it was going to be another show that gives me a shadow of what adapted Shakespeare can do but fails to really follow through. But I was wrong. This show was amazing.
Tanja Jacobs directed this lively version that began with a fun musical number. I’ve read some reviews saying it goes on for too long but I would disagree. Watching Orsino belting out while wearing a bathrobe was pretty worth the wait. My only complaint was the transition into the actual show from the opening number was a tad clunky. Twelfth Night is a lot about music so I really enjoyed the joyful interjections of tunes. I almost felt they could have included music throughout scenes more rather than splicing them in between moments of the play.
The setting for the play was Hotel Illyria. It allowed Jacobs to place characters into different hierarchal roles that could be easily identified depending on their uniform. The costumes in general were just lots of fun. For example, Viola in disguise was a bellhop. It also introduced a lot of great set elements such as a cart for luggage and an elevator and plants for hiding behind.
I intentionally have avoided talking about Viola in Twelfth Night because I think Viola the character is lame. A topic for another day but Viola is insecure in her disguise rather than a confident lady owning the different sides of herself. But I am biased against her. However, I will say I really liked SiHP’s Viola because they added in more agency for her character. This is a Viola who is willing to act a little riskier from a sexy dance with Orsino and getting intimately close to him when talking. I was a fan.
An overall note for Twelfth Night is that I really need to see some Orsino/Viola romance buildup throughout the play otherwise I just don’t buy the ending at all. If Orsino is just oblivious the whole time to any feelings towards Viola until he discovers she is a female then I am already ten thousand percent over their relationship at the end.
I’m not going to go into another rant about my love for Olivia and Malvolio but both were really good in this production. Instead I am now going to rant about two other characters: Sebastian and Antonio. I am really into this little weird subplot with Antonio’s feelings for Sebastian and if it is not overtly gay then I am also over it. When Antonio’s attraction to Sebastian is omitted from a Twelfth Night then I just feel robbed. The Public Theater’s production played aloofly with this by making Antonio very clearly into Sebastian and Sebastian just entirely unaware of his friend’s feelings for him. The tension was extreme. But finally, with SiHP’s version, THEY WENT THERE. Feelings were reciprocated. They had a confirmed relationship and I was honestly in shock when they kissed because someone finally went there with these two. Sebastian even asks Antonio to come to his room but Antonio, afraid to be seen in town, refuses. When they are reunited at the end, Sebastian is married to Olivia. Antonio exits in a hurry and Sebastian looks longingly after his scorned lover. Ugh. My heart.
Also everyone smooches at the end of this production. Olivia remains attracted to Viola. Sebastian is confirmed bisexual. Even Orsino seems less annoying at the end because of his amazing bathrobe belting at the top of the show.
I was real happy.
For me, I am still unsure about a lot of stuff in Twelfth Night. I really never know how to feel about Orsino and Viola getting together at the end. But ultimately I found a lot of love for the other characters in the show and became extremely passionate (/biased) about how the story is presented and what should be highlighted. I have become very opinionated about Twelfth Night for better or for worse, which I think has made me enjoy the play more because now I see the stuff to debate and dig into. I have come to enjoy the journey. But I probably could go the rest of 2017 without seeing another Twelfth Night because four shows in one year is maybe a tad excessive (even for me).
… Unless anyone feels like buying me a plane ticket to see Emma Rice’s at the Globe.