Alas, Poor Yorick! The summer’s almost over! Now I sip at the dregs of my final Balzac’s iced tea and while I try to articulate what I experienced this afternoon. Twelfth Night is a wonderful play; it’s a family favourite, which is why the Stratford Festival (nay, any Shakespeare festival) seems to play it on a 4-year loop with As You Like It, Much Ado, and Midsummer. That being said, Twelfth Night is far from fluff, and although it’s a comedy, there’s personal trauma, tragedy, loss, and grief bubbling not too far beneath the surface for those who are looking for it.
I’m not going to lie, I had my reservations when the audience began to wildly applaud as stage/film star Brian Dennehy (best known to me as Montague in Luhrmann’s R+J) came onstage. It reminded me of last year’s The Tempest, where you could actually see Christopher Plummer break character and bask in the applause, which is why I tend to grumble when people blindly worship the stage vetran. But Dennehy didn’t force the audience to see this ensemble-driven play as being led by his shining star. I appreciated this, especially because Sir Toby is but half of the slap-stick tag-team, completed by Sir Andrew Aguecheek. Not having done any research on the cast before I got there, I was over the moon to find that the role was being played by Stephen Ouimette, also known as the deliciously snarky ghost of director Oliver Welles in Slings and Arrows. Onstage, the two were a hilarious team, but their achievements were crowned by Sir Andrew’s spontaneous vomiting in one scene (staged but shocking), and his accidental dropping of his towel in a steam-room scene, a gaff that I’m sure was not staged. It shocked the audience into a two-minute round of applause and I applaud Sir Toby and Fabian’s heroic efforts to maintain straight faces in character.
Feste was also a favorite of mine. An excellent character on the page, I’ve been disappointed by some stage renditions of it, and tend to use Sir Ben Kingsley’s take on the character in the Trevor Nunn film as the standard by which to judge others. Ben Carlson’s took a much different take on the character, proving that an actor’s goal mustn’t be to replicate or emulate another actor playing the character, but rather to emulate the essence of the character himself, finding within the text rationale for playing him a certain way. While Ben Kingsley played a more stoic, Buddha-like, but ultimately fun-loving and kind-hearted Feste, Stratford’s Ben basked in the character’s ambivalence: mischievous but doleful, and entirely unapologetic in his perpetual pan-handling.
In writing the character of Feste, Shakespeare introduced an entirely new fool to the stage: gone were Will Kempe’s slapstick Clowns as found in the Dogberries and Nick Bottoms, and present was Robert Armin’s Fool, the “corruptor of words,” manifested by the likes of Feste and Lear’s Fool. These vagabond-like characters are professionally attached, but never harbouring any physical or permanent attachment to any character. My mysteriously fading away when their guidance is no longer needed, these characters likewise appear out of nowhere. Maria tells Feste: “My lady will hang thee for thy absence,” and Carlson forbids us from being sure where he’s been: could he have fled the scene upon the death of Olivia’s brother, a lamentable time in which the Fool’s gibes were unwelcome? Or perhaps he was suffering from the loss, too, harbouring a homosexual love for him much akin to Antonio’s for Sebastian? For a moment, I even felt like his character might have been in love with his mistress Olivia, not unlike Malvolio. Whatever the case, he has returned from beyond. He brings with him the carnivalesque celebration of Twelfth Night, the night when all social structures are inverted and the fool himself performs the roles of Lord of Misrule and Abbot of Unreason.
By far the most exciting part of this production was its musicality. At first I was skeptical, thinking that it couldn’t have possibly been a coincidence that Stratford was staging a musical Shakespeare in the same year that Josie Rourke staged an 80’s music-inspired Much Ado, but frankly, I needed the reminder that not everyone is as doggedly anglocentric as I am. My favorite professor at Royal Holloway was always hinting that somebody should write a dissertation on the mysteries hidden within the songs in Shakespeare’s plays. Twelfth Night is especially full of them, as per the play’s famous opening lines: “If music be the food of love, play on.” Sometimes, like in the exceptionally hilarious kitchen scene, the Fool riles up his audience with a joking ditty and playful banging on pots and pans until they wake up the surly Malvolio. Later in the play, we are reminded that this fool is not all benevolence, standing above the imprisoned Malvolio’s cell and tauntingly singing that the servant’s mistress “loves another.” Unapologetic for truly being the only character rational enough to expose the foolishness of those around him, Feste is silently exiled from the romantic final action of the play, because, as we’re told in Midsummer Night’s Dream, “To say the truth, reason and love keep little company together now-a-days.”
Final verdict? A heartfelt “go see it!”: bring the whole family, and then buy the cd for cheesey singalongs on the way home!
Twelfth Night is playing at the Festival Theatre in Stratford, Ontario, until October 28.