Reviewed by James Karas
The 2017 Stratford Festival opened with the usual fanfare and a production of Twelfth Night directed by Martha Henry with Graham Abbey Associate Director.
The production must be judged a mixed success. There were sparks of humour, some fine performances and a number of imaginative touches by Henry. There were also flat performances, tone-deaf delivery of iambic pentameters and understated performances where exuberance was more appropriate.
Let’s start with the positives. Geraint Wyn Evans and Tom Rooney got the juicy roles of Sir Toby Belch and Sir Andrew Aguecheek and they made use of all the comic latitude that Shakespeare gives them. Belch is always drunk, boisterous and funny. Rooney’s Aguecheek with the flaxen hair, his attempts at dancing and wooing is the perfect foolish knight. The duel between Aguecheek and Viola, engineered by Belch and Fabian is hilariously choreographed.
Lucy Peacock with that unmistakable twang in her voice makes an amusing and effective Maria. Brent Carver is a funny Feste the fool when he is not rushing through his lines.
Sarah Afful plays Viola who dresses up as Cesario who falls in love with Orsino and Olivia falls in love with her because she thinks she is a he. Her voice and her intonation must be full of feeling. When she addresses Olivia, she should be shy, effusive and display such emotion that Olivia falls head over heels in love with her. She does not show much of that until the latter part of the play.
The beautiful Olivia of Shannon Taylor is more convincing in her emotional rush towards Cesario but she is a bit understated in my view. She comes fully alive in the later scenes. Michael Blake does a good job as Sebastian.
B. Smith’s Duke Orsino looks like a law-and-order ruler rather than lovesick man who cannot take no for an answer from Olivia even after being repeatedly rebuffed. Shakespeare makes it clear that Orsino is besotted with Olivia but Martha Henry has downgraded his ardor considerably.
The most problematic and interesting role in Twelfth Night is that of Malvolio, the steward in Olivia’s household. He is censorious, full of self-love, domineering, ambitious and foolish. He is a perfect target for ridicule and revenge by his underlings or those he wants to consider as his inferiors. The vengeance taken on him by Belch, Aguecheek and Feste goes beyond ridicule into serious mistreatment and hence the problem with the character of Malvolio.
Henry has Rod Beattie play the role flat. He should be imperious and condescending when he belittles or rebukes members of the household. Instead, he is almost business-like. When he reads Maria’s letter and convinces himself that Olivia wants to marry him, his performance should be modulated so that we can laugh at him for his foolishness. He reads the letter almost matter-of-factly. Even when he is locked up in the dungeon, he displays very little emotion or distress when he asks (it should be begs) Feste for ink and paper. Feste shows us how Malvolio spoke to him in the final scene of the play when he reads Malvolio’s letter like a madman. We know that Beattie can do much better and this performance was a waste of his talent.
Henry made some minor changes to the text allowing for some entrances and exits that gave us some context. For example, we see Olivia crying on the balcony as Belch and Aguecheek make their first entrance.
The costumes by Designer John Pennoyer are from sometime in the past with Orsino’s servants wearing black wigs and black clothes. No issue with the costumes.
When you read the cast list, you will notice half a dozen named attendants who wait on Orsino and Olivia. Try figuring out who is who. In the text they are listed as “Attendants” but Henry seems to have decided to give them names even though we have no idea who they are.
We end where we began. Some sparks, some imaginative touches, some genuine laughter and some flat patches.
Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare opened on May 29 and will continue in repertory until October 21, 2017 at the Festival Theatre, 55 Queen Street, Stratford, Ontario. www.stratfordfestival.ca