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Bell Shakespeare's: Twelfth Night

Andrew Filmer - 1st October 2004

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Twelfth Night is a play shot through with ambiguity. While the antics of Sir Toby Belch and Malvolio provoke laughter and the ending seems complete with reunions and the promise of marriages, there still remains an unresolved tension. Malvolio’s parting words “I’ll be revenged … on the whole pack of you!” hang uneasily, and Feste’s parting song, while pointing out that the play is at its end, remains a hauntingly unfinished ditty.

In this production by Bell Shakespeare, director David Freeman has taken the “extraordinarily site specific” aspects of Shakespeare’s text as justification for his translation of the play’s setting to Australia, “in order to maintain the quality of the specificity, if not the detail”. This is indeed a highly appropriate approach and it does provide a point of entry for the potentially wide range of audience members that Bell Shakespeare attracts during its touring seasons. Unfortunately it also allows for some particularly daggy moments as well. Orsino’s ‘food of love’ speech, delivered whilst listening to an Apple Ipod, is nothing less than naff.

The sudden tempest that opens the performance promises much in the way of poetic intensity. Two figures strain in the semi-dark against a torrent of water, thunder and screams filling out an ominous soundtrack. While this initially promises an imaginative production, the moment soon passes and the stage world of the performance is revealed as all too ordinary.

Part of this is down to Dan Potra’s design. As a setting, Potra has supplied two doors at either side of the Playhouse stage placed in a large blue plastic backdrop, a reminder of the watery beginning. A large picture frame replete with curtains dominates the centre of the stage. This frame rolls forward and back, allowing for a stage within a stage to emphasise some scenes. It is the ordinariness of the setting, also reflected in much of the costuming, that closes the production in, rather than opening it out. Not even the sudden dropping of the plastic backdrop at the moment in which Sebastian and Viola are reunited can escape this, the moment instead providing an awkward pause.

It is the comic timing and confusions of the plot that carry this particular production. Caroline Craig’s performance as Viola provides a strong spine to the production, and her portrayal of Viola-as-Caesario was particularly convincing. Of the comic characters John Batchelor’s Sir Toby Belch was an almost catatonic blue-blazered bully, with Phillip Dodd’s Sir Andrew Aguecheek constantly behind the eight ball. Batchelor’s quick shifts of gear were particularly enjoyable. Bille Brown’s performance received the most overt audience appreciation, his Malvolio transforming from a bureaucratic snob into a crazed yellow-stockinged and cross-gartered cockroach. Jonathon Hardy’s Feste was hard to pin down, but that is the mystery of Feste; he plays the fool and invites laughter, but is hardly the fool in comparison to many of the others. Of the less comic characters, Linda Cropper played a comfortable foil to Sir Toby and Andrew Aguecheek, whilst Genevieve Hegney’s Olivia displayed increasing depth as the performance progressed.

Whilst this Twelfth Night is enjoyably comic, it doesn’t possess the poetic expansiveness to make it truly memorable.

  • director: David Freeman
  • genre: Shakespeare
  • location: Playhouse, Sydney Opera House
  • season ends: November 6th
  • cast_1: Genevieve Hegney, Linda Cropper, John Batchelor, Philip Dodd
  • cast_2: Bille Brown, Jonathan Hardy, Mark Owen-Taylor, Drayton Morley
  • cast_3: Caroline Craig, Matthew Moore, Paul Ashton, Pip Miller

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