Chronicling a Love Affair with Canadian Theatre

twelfth night

Twelfth Night At The Stratford Festival

Seana McKenna, one of the Stratford Festival’s great leading ladies, is directing her first play by William Shakespeare on the Festival’s formidable main stage. Her stripped down production of Twelfth Night dispenses with the visual distractions that directors frequently slather on so she can concentrate on the text. The result, despite one questionable casting choice, is a lucid interpretation of this perennial favorite.

Like Sam White with this season’s Romeo and Juliet, McKenna has chosen to mount Twelfth Night on a mostly bare stage. I’m sure these were purely aesthetic decisions, but I couldn’t help thinking that the Festival must be saving a bundle on sets this season.

The only extravagance is a Calder-eque mobile that hangs over the stage to remind us that this Twelfth Night, for reasons known only to the director, has been set in the very specific year of 1967, when the “Summer of Love” ushered in the psychedelic era. Fortunately, it becomes easy to forget this conceit as the play gets under way, although that mobile has a way of catching the light and being distracting.

I will dispense with a detailed plot summary on the assumption that if you are reading this you have seen Twelfth Night at least once before. I’ve now seen it three times at the Stratford Festival alone!

One of the great virtues of this production is that McKenna has obviously taken care to assure that her actors speak the speeches trippingly on the tongue. Of this season’s three Shakespeares, Twelfth Night boasts the best enunciation by far.

The shining center of this Twelfth Night is the storyline involving the shipwrecked Viola (Jessica B. Hill), disguised as Cesario, and serving the love-struck Count Orsino (André Sills), who pines for the aloof Countess Olivia (Vanessa Sears) who is deep in mourning for her dead brother.

Hill is absolutely super as Viola and is nothing like the pouty sexpot she portrays on the cover of the programme thank God. She is masterfully funny as she navigates the plight of a young woman in man’s clothing falling deeply in love with her boss. For his part, Sills has a good deal of fun wondering why the male camaraderie he shows his now favorite servant is shading over into something … else.

As Olivia, Sears is every bit Hill’s equal. When she falls head over heels for Cesario and throws off her mourning veil she becomes a deliciously giddy girl too much in love to play coy.

Hill and Sears both appear in Romeo and Juliet as Lady Capulet and Juliet respectively and they are quite good. But in Twelfth Night they really shine.

Viola’s twin brother Sebastian (Austin Eckert) enters well after the love entanglements of Viola, Olivia, and Orsino are underway and his startling resemblance to Viola/Cesario begins to thicken the plot considerably.

Shakespearean twins always present challenges in performance but thanks to clever costuming (by Christina Poddubiuk, who also handled the minimal sets) and wigs, it only requires the slightest suspension of disbelief to buy into the illusion. Eckert is wonderfully befuddled when the gorgeous Olivia takes him into her heart and into her wedding bed.

The other major plot line, involving the servants and hangers on in Countess Olivia’s court fares less well. The drunkard Sir Toby Belch (Scott Wentworth) and the nitwit Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Rylan Wilkie) are well played. Wentworth is not only somewhat less of a total sot than other Belches you might have seen but I liked the way he makes it clear that he is using Sir Andrew to serve his own less than honourable agenda. Maria, Olivia’s gentlewoman and a willing accomplice to the high jinx of Toby and Andrew, is well limned by Sarah Dodd.

I took issue with McKenna’s decision to make Malvolio a woman (a closeted lesbian no less!), a choice that has been greeted rapturously by others. Shakespeare makes savage fun of Malvolio’s gullibility when presented with the illusion that an extremely desirable woman has the hots for him, a peculiarly male affliction.

With this Malvolio, the famous letter scene only makes sense if Maria, who concocted it, and Toby know or at least strongly suspect their target’s sexual orientation and are out to trap her into outing herself.

McKenna compounds the error by taking Malvolio’s post-letter transformation over the top and beyond. Now granted, the whole yellow stocking, cross-gartered thing presents almost insurmountable obstacles for any production other than one that hews closely to “original practices,” but the aggressively raunchy way Malvolio comes on to Olivia beggars belief.

Was ever lesbian in this humour woo’d? Was ever lesbian in this humour won?

McKenna soft pedals the more sadistic aspects of the cruel trick Sir Toby and company play on Malvolio, but the unmistakeable takeaway is that she is being punished for her sexuality as much as for her presumption. There is a whiff of homophobia about the proceedings and, while I seem to be in a distinct minority, I found it distasteful.

That being said, Laura Condlln gives an absolutely smashing performance as the pompous factotum. She is a gifted actor and among her many other virtues hers is the sharpest diction in the company. It would have been interesting to see what would have happened had she played Malvolio as a man, something I have no doubt she could have pulled off easily.

The other gender swap in this Twelfth Night is Feste (Deborah Hay), Olivia’s fool, a switcheroo that makes more sense. Fans of Hay, and I count myself among them, will enjoy the patented Hay goofiness she brings to the role.

Hay plays Feste as a hippie troubadour, as befits the period setting McKenna has chosen. I wondered then about the music composed by Paul Shilton for the several songs Feste sings. They harken back to a much earlier period, one much closer the period in which Shakespeare wrote, and Hay delivers them in a languid, almost plaintive quaver. Very nice, but why not go for something with more of a 1967 vibe?

Despite my misgivings about the treatment of Malvolio, I quite enjoyed this Twelfth Night. For those who are new to the play, McKenna’s reading has the benefit of allowing the story to come through without being muddled or obscured by directorial conceits.

It also contains two leading female performances by two enchanting women that are among the most enjoyable I have seen at the Festival!

Twelfth Night continues at Stratford’s Festival Theatre through October 26, 2024. For more information and to purchase tickets, visit the Stratford Festival website.

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