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Red-faced and Cross-gartered: SUDS Presents Twelfth Night

Lauren Pearce saw SUDS do Shakespeare (again)

Photo by Bronwyn Hicks Photo by Bronwyn Hicks

Image by Bronwyn Hicks

SUDS does a lot of Shakespeare. This means that, out of sheer necessity, each slot that decides to take on the Bard devises its own spin, makes its own cuts (and occasionally additions), and tweaks each character to produce what everyone desperately hopes will be an original show. The 2016 production of Twelfth Night is certainly original, but some interesting choices result in mixed quality.

Director Imogen King translates the fictional land of Illyria into a series of wild house parties full of wealthy people. This is an interesting concept, and provides a base for a number of humorous moments, including slapstick and physical comedy. However, little connection is drawn between the text, the characters’ performance, and King’s premise. Orsino (Elliot Falzon) is dressed to the nines as a dudebro, but speaks in (a valiant attempt at) received pronunciation. While no university actor should be expected to speak in perfect RP, I was lost as to why the cast or crew thought it was necessary to try, especially given that the changed context allows room for experimentation.

Equal parts inconsistent and concerning is the way the production treats the characters’ gender. Twelfth Night, aside from being Shakespeare’s gayest play (which is saying a lot), assumes a playful tone about gender that is progressive even by today’s standards. The play’s subtitle: “OR What You Will” is a giant middle-finger to the gender binary.

It is disappointing, then, to see SUDS’ Twelfth Night throw all of that to the wind. In the original text, Olivia’s chambermaid and two uncles play a trick on Malvolio, making him believe that the Lady Olivia is in love with him, and convincing him to present himself to her in yellow, cross-gartered stockings. In the SUDS adaptation, which is cross-cast (a practice that involves casting actors that identify with a different gender to their character), the pronouns other characters use to refer to Malvolio are inconsistent, giving the audience the impression that Malvolio is a woman.

This changes the subplot from a trick played on a stuffy man to one played on a queer woman, who outs and then humiliates herself because she believes that her feelings are requited. The crew does not use this to make a comment on homophobia, or gender fluidity. Instead, we are expected to laugh at a spectacle which is far from funny, spoiling what is otherwise the best performance of the night.  Given that Malvolio’s character could read just as well as a man, this seems like another hasty decision that leaves audiences scratching their heads.

Overall, the production is a brave attempt by a fairly new cast and crew. However, more time and thought would have benefited this Twelfth Night. Mounting a show of this magnitude involves a steep learning curve, one which I believe this slot fails to navigate.