Theatre Company: Sun and Moon Theatre
Cast: Melissa Barrett, David Johnson, Ben Gilbert, Emily Holyoake, Emerson Pike, Jessica Holyoake, Mike Gilpin, Chelsea Marie, Lizi Bennett and Richard Knox
Plot: Viola (Barrett) is washed up in Ilyria, her twin brother dead in a shipwreck. Disguising herself as a male, she works in the court of Orsino (Gilbert), accidentally making the woman Orsino loves fall for her.
Twelfth Night has always been one of the Shakespeare plays I have rated higher than the rest, perhaps merely for the selfish reasoning that I know it more than I do the others. However, there is a lot to love about Shakespeare’s jovial comedy, an excellent farce of mistaken identity, featuring a poor girl trapped in the middle of one of literature’s most bizarre love triangles. It is also a very powerful piece, charming audiences with wit and humour in the early stages, but opening up with some emotional revelations later in the day, which gives every character justice and leaves you staggering at the power of Shakespeare’s work. Twelfth Night throws us into the world of Viola, a shipwrecked girl in Ilyria. Through an opening cinematic, we learn that she and her twin brother’s ship was destroyed and Viola was lucky to survive. Her brother is almost definitely dead. The action fast-forwards to the stage, where Viola dresses like a male, Cesario, to get her a high-ranking job in the court of a wounded soldier, Orsino. While she harbours a crush on Orsino, Orsino’s attentions are far more focused on a neighbouring Countess, Olivia, mourning from the death of her father and brother. Orsino sends Viola to convince Olivia to take his hand in marriage, but upon her arrival, Olivia falls in love with Viola, believing her to be a man. While Viola finds herself in this terribly awkward situation, Olivia’s brother, a drunken fool, Ser Toby, is using a visiting rich man with a crush on Olivia and the cruel Malvolio, for his amusement. And meanwhile, Viola’s twin brother washes up on the shore of Ilyria himself, alive and heading for Olivia’s court.
Sun and Moon Theatre do a stand-up job of capturing the entertaining side of this piece. From start to finish, the audience are constantly entertained, laughing at the audacity of Shakespeare’s humour, left breathless at the story at work and captivated by each and every performance. Twelfth Night’s biggest challenge (not just with this particular performance but with any adaptation), is that the sub-plot, featuring a bunch of drunken fools playing tricks on the nasty steward, is easily more entertaining that the main plot. As amusing as the mistaken identity strand of Twelfth Night is, you are always eager to be back to Ser Toby’s cheeky ways. Perhaps this is mainly down to the fact that Twelfth Night starts so abruptly, we only really feel we know Viola, Orsino and Olivia by the end of the piece. Melissa Barrett is asked to carry Viola with her charisma, but when boiled down to it, Viola’s job is to react to the crazy world around her. Only in the softer moments is Barrett really allowed to show us what the character is made of. Ben Gilbert has two roles to sink his teeth into, ending up with both the worst and best character. While his Antonio is an emotional sucker-punch of a performance, especially in the final moments of the play, Gilbert struggles with the lack of depth missing in his other role. Orsino, simply put, is just the lovelorn hopeful, writing constantly to Olivia, despite her put-downs and not getting the hint. With this character, Gilbert isn’t allowed to have anywhere near as much fun. On the other hand, Emily Holyoake gives Olivia more humanity than I have ever seen an actress bring to the table before.
The other side of the cast, the bawdy fools that spend their time on stage, are much harder to review. On one hand, they are nothing short of brilliant. Jessica Holyoake has the snappy retorts and understanding of the dialogue to find humour in places where other productions never thought to look. Mike Gilpin’s portrayal of Feste is an irresistibly energetic performance. David Johnson’s Sir Andrew comic timing is on fine form. And Emerson Pike’s Ser Toby, probably the character every actor secretly wants to play, is nothing short but comedy gold, constantly drunk and endlessly witty. Yes, the comedy act here never falters. At the same time, as someone that knows the play quite well, there were certain sides to each character that was arguably never explored, at least not well enough. There is a beating heart to Ser Toby that rarely shone through, the bigger emphasis on the gags. Sir Andrew felt like the runty best mate of Ser Toby, but that’s not really the character. The Sir Andrew I am familiar with is a visiting rich man who tries to charm Olivia, fails and Ser Toby convinces to hang around, merely to give his alcohol dependence company. While they act like friends, there was also this false relationship and interesting power dynamic between the two characters, that the Sun and Moon Theatre Company decided to not really explore, beyond some initial exposition. You can see why however, the best friend dynamic easier to get across and instrumental for some of the play’s best jokes. Maria, as well, is capable of a lot more. She was always one of the better characters in the play, secretly craving to take part in Ser Toby’s foolish games, but also a high-ranking member of Olivia’s court and sworn to be a responsible figurehead. Her addition to the gang of trouble-makers was a see-sawing debate of her own morality. In fact, all the more credit to Jessica Holyoake for making her take on the character so memorable and witty, without having the chance to take the character to these interesting depths. Meanwhile Richard Knox’s Malvolio is excellent, hilarious, show-stealing…
On the whole, the cast are well-rounded and there isn’t one dud performance. You will definitely leave Twelfth Night commending the cast on their delightful take on Shakespeare’s farce. That being said, outside of the acting, there are points where improvements could be made. For one, the costumes are a case of ‘this’ll do’, rather than anything lavishly periodic. The venue of this particular performance also didn’t help, the lack of stacked seating, working against the audience’s ability to enjoy the show. It was hard not to pity the poor back row. Exits were also slightly forced, a lack of convenient escape being offered to the cast. That being said, certain beats were the theatre company’s own doing. Scene transitions could have been finer, the actors having to move the sets around themselves, which always creates an absence of acting, when they are so clearly leaving character to move a chest of drawers. Perhaps one point where a few faces would disagree with me is my disapproval of the use of trans-media. I freely admit that I am biased at this aspect of theatre, the use of video on stage rarely winning me over, especially when whole scenes are depicted through the use of film. A part of me simply doesn’t like the fact I am robbed of seeing that scene on-stage, the director deciding not to cleverly weave it into the production. This particular use of trans-media is even more frustrating, because it is used so irregularly that its use at all feels like something easy to scrap. One out of the two recorded scenes feels totally pointless, the return of Viola’s twin brother, Sebastian, explained to us through a duologue, only to be then shown to us on film immediately after. It doesn’t feel needed and does not win me over to trans-media’s place in theatre at all. However, one place the crew side of Twelfth Night get absolutely right is the use of music. Having a live orchestra playing to us during the play brings a powerful amount to the final piece, eloquently lifting our spirits at the right time. Whether it is Mike Gilpin’s Feste performing a breath-taking acoustic song as a part of the play or the orchestra at the back working their wonderful magic, it is a treat that I wish more theatre companies would consider adopting.
Final Verdict: A strong cast lead the way in this laugh-out-loud roller-coaster comedy, even if behind the scenes details threaten to betray them.