Review: New Theatre’s “Twelfth Night”, written by William Shakespeare

Updated: Jan 14

Editor's Note: The cast listed before you changes roles nightly as is the concept of Twelfth Night: Heads or Tails. "Twelve actors each learn two parts and toss a coin at the beginning of each performance to determine their character for the evening."


Review by Priscilla Issa

It was once quoted “life is a tragedy for those who feel, and a comedy for those who think”. This was Jean de la Bruyere. His quote sums up the essence of New Theatre’s take on Twelfth Night. Victor Kalka’s (Director) interpretation is an audience’s heaven. Typically, a production laden with hilarious and confusing plots, Kalka manages to also induce feelings of tragedy around human folly.

The storyline begins when Viola (Zac Bush), who’s shipwrecked in Illyria, dons men’s clothing and sets off to work for Duke Orsino (Rowena McNicol), who sends this “manservant” to be Orsino’s would-be lady, Olivia (Cameron Hutt), who falls in love with Viola who is in fact playing Cesario. Confused yet? To befuddle the audience even more, there are further subplots. Concealed identities and constantly trying to work out ‘who’s who?’ are what make this play one of the most perennial of Shakespeare’s comedies. Of course, all these hinge on whether a savvy interpreter can take this 400-plus-year-old play and reinvigorate it for modern audiences. Kalka, as director, should be commended on his efforts.

At the risk of outraging Shakespeare purists, the director’s vision was contemporary and relevant. Relevant? How? He says, “For me so much of Twelfth Night is about grief, separation and isolation and the way in which people respond to that. There is a lot in these themes which resonate with the experience of going through 2020 - like the characters I think we all went a little mad!”

Poetry and humour are the bare bones of this play. But working closely with Bronte Barnicoat (Costume Designer), Lachlan Massey (Composer) and Ryan Devlin (Sound Designer), the director has brilliantly melded 21st Century costumes with original and modern musical items and soundtracks to amplify and accentuate the written work.

Cameron Hutt and Sarah Greenwood shine in this production. Between them, they executed Shakespeare’s well-timed comedic quips, scenes of unrequited love and desperation for affection to perfection.

Hutt’s performance is bound to be a large talking point over the next few days. His performance as the besotted Olivia was nuanced. He skilfully strikes a balance between a woman weighing up her morals as a grieving widow against her helpless desire for Cesario. What can sometimes feel like a trivialisation, or a mimicry, of gender fluidity in theatre was exquisitely countered in this casting of Cameron. As a consequence of his exceptional acting chops, I found myself reeled into Olivia’s world - a woman’s world, filled with all its generalised naivety, sensuality and coyness - that I had forgotten the character was being played by a man.

Equally, Greenwood, playing Malvolio, had the audience at her fingertips. Greenwood appears to be an instinctive comic actor and was repaid liberally with audience laughter and applause.

Most impressive was her gradual transition from steward to closet lesbian who falls head over heels for the blissfully unaware Olivia. Greenwood’s ability to fluctuate between severe disciplinarian and besotted dreamer in a moment's notice, was skilful and, dare I say, the definition of a comic actor. While at first I found the move from stern house warden to yellow stocking-donning-sexually-liberal-woman jarring, Greenwood won me back over playing a person whose identity had been shattered and emotions manipulated.

Zac Bush’s performance as Viola, was delicately understated; he conveyed a woman who was being tug-of-warred between allegiances with Orisino and Antonio, and dodging the affections of Olivia. The audience could sense Viola’s helplessness when caught out, all thanks to the actor’s sincerity. Other Violas might have easily been overplayed or over-dramatised; Zac set his intention as actor from the start and was consistent right through.

The only point of weakness was the approach to ‘style’ taken by the three bumbling fools, Valentine, Feste and Sir Andrew. I certainly appreciate these characters are drunken loons, manipulating and plotting all for the sake of self-satisfaction. However, I feel there was a mismatch between the approach to style taken by these actors and the rest of the cast, namely the protagonists. This is not to say that Patrick Sunderland, Eleni Cassimatis and Lucinda Howeles are not talented; they are brilliant in their own right. But perhaps they could have been directed to reel back the melodrama to be more consistent with the austere and subdued performances of others.

At this point, it should be mentioned that when one takes a step back and looks at the approach to the production generally, there seemed to be an overall lack of consensus about whether to approach the play in the traditionally whimsical style of Shakespeare, or with a touch of realism.

In the end, though, one leaves the production with a sense of hope.

Against the tumultuous tide of what was 2020’s fate with COVID-19, we’re perhaps all a bit helpless in our station, despite our best efforts to not be fools and do the right things, as a community (think lockdowns and masks). Perhaps the joy of an absurd comedy is that every character comes across as a “helpless fool” in their respective plots and, yet, there is a deep sense of communal compassion. This idea was executed perfectly in the final chorus number, beautifully sung by all cast members.


Photo Credit, Clare Hawley

Please note: Not all of these photos represent the actors in the same characters as described in the review.

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