Stage Door Review

Twelfth Night

Wednesday, May 29, 2024


by William Shakespeare, directed by Seana McKenna

Stratford Festival, Festival Theatre, Stratford

May 27-October 26, 2024

Viola: “O Time, thou must untangle this, not I”

The Stratford Festival has opened its 72nd season with an excellent production of Twelfth Night. Seana McKenna in her first directorial outing on the Festival Stage has taken the production back to its essentials with a minimally decorated stage and a strong emphasis on clarity in delivering Shakespeare’s verse. Reinforced by non-traditional casting in two key roles, McKenna’s vision highlights themes often ignored or glossed over in other productions and leads to one of the richer accounts of Shakespeare’s comedy at Stratford so far this century.

When the audience enters the Festival Theatre those old enough to remember will immediately feel drawn back to the Festival’s Golden age in the 1970s and ‘80s before directors and designers felt they had to cover up the beautifully bare wooden stage designed by Tanya Moiseiwitsch that made it one of the most important examples of theatre design in the 20th century. Recent directors have wanted a “set” and so have covered over the original floor and walls. The genius of Moiseiwitsch’s bare stage is that, like Shakespeare’s stage, it could be wherever the words the characters spoke would set the action.

Christina Poddubiuk’s only addition to the stage is a large, 1960s-style mobile sculpture, reminiscent of works by Alexander Calder, suspended over the stage and moving according to air currents throughout the show. The mobile, besides setting the time period for the action, also serves as a metaphor for the constantly shifting relationships among the characters. Where the mobile fails as a metaphor is that it shows only how the relationships change but not how they progress. Twelfth Night, as the title reference to the Eve of Epiphany indicates, is about the end of feasting and indulgence, sudden perception of the truth and the return to the everyday after a period of celebration. Orsino caught up in his hopeless quest for love, Olivia caught up in her overlong period of mourning and Sir Toby caught up in his continual drunkenness are all examples of self-indulgence that is eventually cured by the end of the play.

McKenna makes a few significant changes in presenting the play. She begins the action with a dumbshow of Viola and her twin brother Sebastian on a boat (the stage balcony) just before the storm that arrives and causes the shipwreck that separates them. The added scene isn’t necessary but it is helpful in introducing Sebastian right at the start rather than halfway through the play as Shakespeare does.

Much more important are McKenna’s decisions to have Feste and Malvolio played by female actors. McKenna herself is no stranger to playing Shakespearean roles traditionally played by men such as Richard III (2011), Julius Caesar (2018) and King Lear (2018). Each of those cases was an example of gender-blind casting that allowed one of Canada’s most celebrated actors to play parts that in less enlightened times would have been closed to her. The casting of Deborah Hay as Feste is a prime example of such casting since Hay is known both for comedy and for singing but would otherwise not normally have the chance to play Feste.

The casting of Laura Condlln as Malvolio, however, is a brilliant example of using non-traditional casting to bring out a too-often hidden theme in the play. Critics in the late 20th century have noted how much the play focusses on sexuality and sexual roles. Shakespeare does frequently use the device of having young women disguise themselves as young men (viz. Two Gentlemen of Verona, As You Like It, Cymbeline). But Twelfth Night is the only play where the disguised woman falls in love with a man and is loved by a woman, thus toying with suggestions of both male and female homosexuality. When Orsino learns “Cesario” is really a woman, he makes the strange remark, “Boy, thou hast said to me a thousand times / Thou never shouldst love woman like to me”, rather easily converting a homosexual statement to a heterosexual one.

With a female Malvolio, Sir Toby and Maria’s trick of revealing Malvolio’s love for her employer Olivia amounts to outing Malvolio and shaming her for her sexuality. This situation strengthens Shakespeare’s investigation of who is permitted to love whom and makes Toby and Maria’s trick especially cruel. For a modern audience, what the female Malvolio endures makes it much clearer why she should flee so prejudiced and hypocritical a society.

Along with the theme of sexuality and sexual roles, McKenna emphasizes more than I’ve ever noticed before the theme of the passage of time. McKenna seems to make every cast member stress the word “time” whenever it appears. Most people remember Feste’s last spoken line, “And thus the whirligig of time brings in his revenges”, but McKenna’s direction made me realize that references to “time” are strewn throughout the play. The word “time”, in fact, occurs 35 times. One of the most important of these is Viola’s statement about how her dilemma of loving and being loved will be solved: “O Time, thou must untangle this, not I”, a remark that points ahead to Shakespeare’s romances. In The Winter’s Tale (1611), where Time is a character, we hear him says that he “makes and unfolds error”.

The brilliance of McKenna’s direction is to show us how the passage of time helps to purge the various characters of the excesses in which they indulge. André Sills gives us an egocentric Orsino who is not so much in love with Olivia as in love with the idea of hopeless love. Shakespeare makes fun of Orsino’s chauvinist notion that men have more capacity for love than women by having him say such things to Viola, who knows much more about love than does he. Sills plays Orsino’s pomposity as form of ignorance which the awkward truth of his affection will soon sweep away. McKenna stages a wonderful moment when Orsino and “Cesario” begin with a manly hug that suddenly acquires passion and almost leads to a kiss. Sills has Orsino turns away with a look of puzzlement but not disgust.

Vanessa Sears is an elegant Olivia. Sears shows us that Olivia has an inherently lively nature that is already starting to café against Olivia’s vow of mourning her dead brother for seven years. This explains why Olivia would have such a fool as Feste about her and why she is so susceptible to a fresh young “man” like “Cesario”.

Jessica B. Hill, a wonderfully sympathetic Viola, makes a very convincing “Cesario” and finds comedy in how Viola is always on the alert for clues as to how to act like a man. She speaks Shakespeare’s verse so clearly and naturally that she simply slips into Viola’s famous “How will this fadge” speech without delivering it as a set piece.

Deborah Hay plays Feste as a wise flower child who is able to speak truths that the uptight Olivia is not entirely unwilling to consider. Hay makes Feste quirky both in manner of speech and movement. Hay’s lovely singing voice, though, reveals a depth to the character we would not have suspected. Paul Shilton’s songs link Feste’s songs to the folk music movement, but the modulations within each song make them sound like oracular utterances. Hay beautifully brings out the songs’ plaintive, otherworldly nature that causes us to reflect on the action and to perceive how all of the characters are subject to the whims of time.

Scott Wentworth gives us a much different Sir Toby Belch than is usually the case. This Toby may be playful and wily but he is not all that likeable. In this production Sir Toby seems especially mean in keeping a feeble-minded innocent like Sir Andrew Aguecheek about him to be the source of his funds as well as the object of his sport. We feel it a good thing when his Sir Toby insults Sir Andrew too relentlessly and Sir Andrew, gawky and dismayed at his betrayal as played by Ryan Wilkie, finally decides to leave. We also feel it is a good thing when Wentworth fills Sir Toby’s voice with self-disgust when Toby thinks they have good too far in mistreating Malvolio.

A not-too-likeable Sir Toby makes the role of Maria more complicated. Sarah Dodd shows that Maria is in love with Sir Toby from the start. In thinking of how to be revenged on Malvolio, Dodd brilliantly makes Maria’s hesitations a signal that Maria is wavering between trying to please Toby and the knowledge that outing Malvolio is distasteful.

Laura Condlln’s Malvolio will go down as one of the finest portrayals of that character that Stratford has seen. Condlln makes Malvolio a kind of stern, over-protective prude not far removed from the steely Mrs. Danvers of Hitchcock’s film Rebecca (1940). Condlln plays each stage of the letter scene perfectly, becoming ever more comic the more seriously Malvolio takes the letter. Condlln’s reaches the height of comedy when she shows Malvolio struggling against her sour nature in an attempt to smile. Malvolio’s conversion is too much. The letter asks only for smiling and cross-gartering whereas McKenna and Poddubiuk have had Malvolio change from Mrs. Danver into a wannabe Twiggy. Nevertheless, Condlln’s voice is filled with sadness and pain when Malvolio is imprisoned and we can hardly fail to think that Malvolio feels humiliated at having her sexual orientation made public.

It is truly uplifting to see a production at Stratford that does justice to Shakespeare’s greatest comedy. McKenna and the cast do not go for easy laughs. Rather, they find the psychological comedy in the play and do not shy away from the play’s more serious themes. On opening night when Orsino kisses “Cesario” (now known as Viola), the audience erupted in cheers. Perhaps Stratford audiences are ready to take Shakespeare’s comedies more seriously.

Christopher Hoile

Photos: Jessica B. Hill as Viola, Deborah Hay as Feste and Vanessa sears as Olivia with the company; Laura Condlln as Malvolio. © 2024 David Hou.

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