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Twelfth Night: or What You Will: Wash up on the shores of wacky antics

In Robson’s production, every character is richly flamboyant and impossible to look away from.

Photo by Yang Wu

Fingerless Theatre’s production of Twelfth Night: or What You Will,  directed by Alex Kendal Robso, is a delight to Shakespeare lovers everywhere. In association with Pride Amplified, Robson has done loving justice to Shakespeare’s queerest play. Twelfth Night is named for the Twelfth day of Christmas, the Eve of Epiphany, where the rules of reality and society would be transgressed, and on the shores of Illyria this is certainly so.

Before the play begins, the fool, Feste (Zachary Aleksander), dressed in flowing beach linen, ukulele case open for spare change, serenades us with several classic dance anthems, ‘Toxic’, ‘I Want to Break Free’, the essentials. In the theatre, seats are arranged in a ring around a spread of beach sand like a gay little island we’ve washed ashore on. Throughout the play, the characters mark it up and down barefoot, the drama imprinted into the floor. The costuming is simple while still very dramatic, finding a balance between Shakespearean elegance and what one packs for a holiday in Greece. The countess Olivia (Rebecca Rolle) has clearly just come from the penthouse of the hotel, and Sir Toby Belch (Robson) has his shirt tucked into his speedos.

In Robson’s production, every character is richly flamboyant and impossible to look away from. Lord Orsino (Denzel Bruhn) enters his first scene having just returned from a Mardi Gras party, fanning himself violently and wearing a stretch harness with “MASSIVE” written in gold. Viola (Jade Fuda), disguised as a young man named Cesario, digs his packer out of his pants and gesticulates wildly with it as he mourns the love of his master. Even the servants, comical and mischievous, read as a vaguely polyamorous gang, with Maria (Chrissy Mae Valentine) as their resident brain cell.

As they inhabit scenes together, each actor has remarkable chemistry with every other. Their romantic mishaps and misunderstandings are heightened by phenomenal physical comedy, especially from Olivia, rolling around in the sand like a cat trying to entice Cesario and Sir Anthony (Teale Howie), the cowardly knight in socks and sandals. The performance is light-hearted and, in the close space of the theatre, every interaction is intimate and immersive.

That being said, the play is not exempt from the darkness which grounds it. Antonio (Shingo Usami) brings a note of sobriety and melancholy to the play in his quiet devotion to young Sebastian (Clay Lewis Crighton), contrasted with the comedic bisexual love affairs of the main story. And in arguably the most intense scene of the play, Aleksander brings a strong menace to the wise fool Feste — essential to his role as a watchful eye and judge of the play.

In Shakespeare’s play, a bit of cheeky cross-dressing causes the mechanics of love and friendship to be muddled. In this performance, on this fantastical island, the characters already exist in shades of grey. Orsino is a mesmerising queen and so is his servant Curio (Eddy O’Leary). Viola, of course, moves through and between genders throughout the play. The character of Malvolio/a (Meg Bennetts) is genderbent, to make the whole thing gayer. Even Sebastian enters one scene wearing his lover’s jewellery and her lipstick smeared over his mouth in an unmistakable bit of subtext.

The acting from the whole cast is superb. The comedy balances nicely with a strong emotional resonance and a real faith in love and connection. Fuda’s performance as Viola is particularly commendable. She finds a balance between comedy and sincerity, giving the whole production a vital reality that sometimes escapes from productions of Shakespeare’s more fantastical plots. The music (music by Antonio Fernandez, arrangement by Zachary Aleksander) ties the play together from its first moment to its last, both the cover songs and the arrangements for Shakespeare’s verses.

Twelfth Night was wonderfully fun. I was so immersed by the characters and the humour that I kept forgetting to take notes. It’s bright and charming, and its elements come together in total harmony. I would recommend it to anyone who loves Shakespeare, but also to anyone who feels a little intimidated by him. This is the perfect play to see how awesome and accessible Shakespeare can be. Check it out from 1-4th and 9-12th of March.