Behind the mask of drama and theatre are the two faces of all. The tragedy and the comedy. Inside Twelfth Night lie both, in this production in quite equal measure. We never truly fall for the love’s laughter if laughter might be too mean spirited. Also, should we heed the warning fall of some, Malvolio (herein as Malvolia) falls hardest, and I think given her prior rise of joyous expectation falls furthest.

From the director Heather Fairbairn a pledge to reveal the truth of Twelfth Night in its intimate origins, bound up in Shakespeare’s original where boys played the parts of women, young and old, and men with beards the other roles. A time of multi layered identity crises and in mistaken identity where the ensuing was a laugh for all. This production will ‘celebrate love’ wherever and whenever it may come. And she encourages that we may, in todays time, “embrace love (romantic love, familial love, platonic love) in all its glorious guises and expressions.” No longer should we laugh at any embarrassed declaration.

Whose turn is it to succeed held a bittersweet melancholia throughout. Less of the jokey playful I have seen of other past productions. Feste, played most admirably by Tomáš Kantor for the archetypal mystic master… although the classic white face and costume switching dissembled he was more mystic than clown. Feste is the songman and somewhat a mystic who also belongs no where and everywhere, easily flitting ‘magically’ across locations. As such he is the only obviously masked character in his ruby red shiny high heeled boots. His posturing aside, he wrapped the entire resonance of the whole in his renditions of the Sarah Blasko composed interpretation of the songs. The songs pierced the comedic bubble. Feste’s laments were a highlight throughout this delightful touring production of Twelfth Night. 

The Charles Davis’ designs of both set and costume are an exotic blend of other worlds themselves, the nature and the unnatural held at bay by what can only be described as a shimmer disguising shower curtain being that which both hides and reveals by a soft edged forecast of what is behind.

Each player also attended from a side show silent witness to the on the stage moments across the floor sheets of green. This nowhere land several times called Illyria takes some players inside it and keeps others on the outer.

This was a play of insiders and outsiders. The sharp reveal of those who felt outside and mistaken and rejected. A sad lament on the unrequited love left unacknowledged in the tryst endeavours of so many. Fairbairn’s choice to wrongfoot the audience however, with the actor playing Viola in the opening moments, Isabel Burton, thence forward to play Sebastian. So that the actor playing a disguised Viola as Cesario Alfie Gledhill might play the boy/lady throughout. I did wonder from then if Viola could return at the conclusion. To avoid further confusion this was not the case.

The final outsiders the exceptionally played abject Malvolia, the disappointed Sir Andrew (Mike Howlett) and the redolent of sincere and discouraged Antonio (Chrissy Mae). Maria too left to kick her feet in her guilty conscience having her revenge on Malvolia only to backfire manifestly. The space transformed for the closing party that imbued a garden wedding with arbour blossoms although the slow shower of petals might also have suggested the loss of the magic spell they have all been under. Into which strides a revealed released Malvolia returns to threaten her revenge upon her revengeful antagonists. 

Overall, a terrific cast, with no weak links. Profoundly unforgettable however is Jane Montgomery Griffiths as Malvolia. She leaves us all a shuddering in her dismissal. She is so wrapped in the love potential of her mistress that only justifies her desire to have the other revellers keep the peace. The audience has never felt such pain as the woman scorned in this manifestation of the character so famously “yellow cross gartered”. Bravo. 

I enjoyed this production and appreciated the somewhat pain amongst joyous playful romance. Shakespeare was still served this night. “If music be the food of love, play on,” and go see it.

Cast: Keith Agius, Isabel Burton, Alfie Gledhill, Amy Hack, Garth Holcombe, Mike Howlett, Tomáš Kantor, Chrissy Mae, Ursula Mills, Jane Montgomery Griffiths
Images by Brett Boardman

A Bell Shakespeare production, Sydney Opera House (Sydney NSW), Oct 24 – Nov 19, 2023

(National Tour from Wiradjuri Country, Orange, NSW in July and culminating in Sydney)