Review by Alison Stoddart
Stepping away from its glamorous home at the Nutshell in the Wharf Bay Arts Precinct and into the even more perfectly located Playhouse Theatre in the Sydney Opera House, Bell Shakespeare’s performance of Twelfth Night was a riotous experience on a cold and blustery weeknight in our big city.
Never have pronouns been more suited than in this gender blurred performance of Twelfth Night. Opening to the music of Sarah Blasko and the captivating voice of Tomáš Kantor, the Frank-N-Furter inspired fool Feste who is a magical talent and whose singing was a highlight. To set the notion of mistaken identity early in the audience’s mind, Kantor sings in soprano to confuse and mislead.
The use of the gender binary to ramp up this trope, and the switching of the character of Malvolio to a female role (Malvolia) is a tactic that pays off under the direction of Heather Fairbairn. The disorientating gender flipping of shipwrecked twins Sebastian and Viola is a master stroke and after Isabel Burton first appears as Viola, it is Alfie Gledhill who takes over with Burton reverting to the role of Sebastian. The sweetness of Gledhill’s smile is pure and feminine.
The simple set design featured elegant tree branches artfully arranged about the stage against the backdrop of the world’s biggest transparent shower curtain. The ruffling and swaying of this curtain conveyed a change of scene to one of ocean breeze and the setting for the shipwreck of Sebastian and Viola. In fact, this moveable forest is put to great effect as sight gags in the scene where Malvolia finds the letter.
The playfulness of the cast is infectious, especially the dynamic between Keith Agius (Sir Toby), Mike Howlett (Sir Andrew) and Amy Hack as Maria. These giddy and cruel three taunt and play with Malvolia (Jane Montgomery Griffiths) culminating in the (well foreshadowed) emergence of her dressed in a yellow balloon of a skintight outfit that brought the house down.
If any drawback, these performances are so exuberant that in some instances, the personalities overwhelm the storytelling. Shakespeare would perhaps be bemused by the lack of clarity of his narrative as the supporting cast steal the show. And like all Bell Shakespeare, choreography and body movement play a big part.
A return to the theatre after interval was highlighted by a creative use of set change, a beautiful and slow evolution of set building that resulted in a teenage girl’s fantasy bedroom of a scene, resplendent with falling flower petals.
Was the momentum lost when it changed pace and dipped back into the traditional tragedy of Shakespeare? The stepping out of its frivolity was a measured act and the abruptness definitely highlighted the humiliation and downfall of Malvolia, showing how love can make a fool of even the most hardest of hearts.
But that is the joy of Bell, they present performances as a unique retelling, leaning into the current emphasis on gender, its fluidity and bias in all guises. In a nutshell, they aim to present a great night out, something that Twelfth Night does brilliantly.