Bell Shakespeare’s production of Twelfth Night, directed by Heather Fairbairn, is performed in a time where the relevance of Shakespeare is increasingly questioned. In a recent article in The Conversation, University of Queensland academic Caitlin West pointed out that Shakespeare was the most performed playwright in Australia 10 years ago, but now, besides Bell Shakespeare, no other major theatre company has performed one of his plays this year. Over two-thirds of plays performed were written after the year 2000, and White argues this is because the attempts by “productions tying themselves in knots trying to make Shakespeare relevant,” are just not worth it when modern stories are available.
Fairburn’s reimaging of Twelfth Night, while modern in appearance, shows audiences the relevance and universality of Shakespeare. It questions the importance society places on romantic love and highlights the many forms affection can take. Rather than attempting to twist the script or context to manufacture relevance, Shakespeare’s words largely stand alone.
Key to the universality of the production is the minimalist set design. Charles David, the show’s designer, created an ahistorical setting that has nothing to do with the mediaeval Balkans, where the play is originally placed. Subtle choices in set design, even if they may go unnoticed in reviews, are the backbone of a good production. One large tree placed across the stage was initially used to cut the stage into distinct parts, later becoming a source for phallic jokes. The branches are ultimately potted and used as decorations for a wedding. David’s design follows the modern trend of adaptable pieces which are moved by characters within scenes. Pauses for elaborate shifts in the set are rare.
The set further introduced layers of metatheatricality. Rather than going backstage, characters would watch scenes from the side lines. A costume rack was also visible meaning some quick changes happened right in front of the audience. The audience is constantly reminded they are watching a performance, and in a play where understandings of gender and identity are always grey, this physical emphasis is powerful.
Commentary on the nature of gender is always present. When Countess Olivia (Ursula Mills) falls in love with Viola (Alfie Gledhill), who is disguised as the page boy Cesario, she describes his masculinity in ironically feminine terms, highlighting his lips and legs. While perhaps simply a device to create comedic effect through dramatic irony in the 16th century, Olivia’s phrasing of her heterosexual desire in this way points to the absurdity of gender binaries in our contemporary context.
Music is central to Twelfth Night. The opening line, “if music be the food of love play on…” frames music as a way to understand human emotion. Feste (Tomas Kantor), a minstrel, sang many songs in the original play, acting as a chorus figure. Minstrels were a crucial aspect of mediaeval culture and the songs sung at The Globe would have been known to many. Composer Sarah Blasko gives these tunes new life using powerful pop melodies and a grand piano on stage to give a modern audience the same sense of comfort a mediaeval one would have had with a jester playing a lute.
Beyond gender and performance, the central comedic thrust of Twelfth Night is the undermining of romantic love. Antonio’s (Chrissy Mae) devotion to Sebastian (Isabel Burton) gets him arrested and the love that Sir Andrew (Mike Howlett) has for Olvia gets him into fights with both Cesario and Sebastian. We laugh hysterically as love forces characters to make absurd choice after absurd choice. Love is infectious — described multiple times on stage as an “illness” or “plague.” Feste exposes that love makes fools of us all. The only character free of romantic relationships in the play does as they please and engages in the plot when it suits them — riding in their scooter or lying down seductively.
That humour takes a confronting and tragic turn in the arc of Madam Malvolia (Jane Griffths). Most productions use Malvolio as a punchline, especially when Sir Toby (Keith Agius) and Maria (Amy Hack) conspire with Andrew to trick her into thinking Olivia loves her back, the audience gets to laugh along. Fairburn’s version highlights the highs and lows love can take you. When she believes Olivia loves her, Malvolia is the largest force on stage and her musical-esque entrance received the longest applause all night. When she is trapped in the dungeon by Olivia as punishment for her proposal, she wails and begs to be set free, exiting the stage as a broken woman. Her arc represents the director’s vision that “love is simultaneously the best thing in the world and the absolute worst”. This suits the popular reading that Twelfth Night is a tragedy disguised as comedy. Personally, it made me wonder how I could have laughed at the dungeon scene in other productions.
While romantic love is questioned, other forms of affection, familial or friendly stand out as pure. Sir Toby and Maria marry each other in the original script, but it’s his homoerotic relationship with Sir Andrew as they dance into the night drunk flirting with each other that shines brightest. In the 16th century, this hedonistic form of comedy was entertaining but had nothing to do with love. Only in a contemporary setting can we value their friendly interactions as something to cherish on the same level. The ultimate climax of the play is not any couple getting together but the emotional reunion of twins Viola and Sebastian who each thought the other had perished at sea during the first act. Even when Viola and Duke Orsino (Garth Holcombe) do get together, Viola never changes her appearance like in other productions to appear more feminine. That is because Orsino fell in love with his page boy Cisario without even knowing what he felt counted as love.
“What is love?” Feste asks the audience. In classic Shakespearean irony, usually reserved for historical plays, the outcast speaks the most truth. Their final song “The Wind and the Rain,” sung at the end, laments the harshness of love but also of life. Twelfth Night responds, arguing we must learn to laugh at ourselves and live in the moment.
Twelfth Night is playing at the Sydney Opera House until November 19th.