Bell bends but doesn’t break

17 August 2023

The mixed up, muddled up, shook up world of Twelfth Night gets given another stir in Bell Shakespeare’s gender re-bender, but David Zampatti is more than rescued by a Malvolia straight out of Samuel Beckett.

Twelfth Night, Bell Shakespeare
State Theatre Centre of WA, 16 August 2023

Twelfth Night has a good claim to be Shakespeare’s funniest play, and for that reason alone is among his most popular.

It can be a head spinner, though. For nearly the entire play its central character Viola (Alfie Gledhill) is disguised as the young man Cesario, compounded in Heather Fairbairn’s staging for Bell Shakespeare by being played by a male actor.

(This, it must be said, is no new thing. As even students of Shakespeare 1.0 know, female roles were played by boys in the Talibanical England of the playwright’s time. That old, legislated tradition has never been completely abandoned in Twelfth Night. The 2012 barnstorming all-male production by Shakespeare’s Globe, with Johnny Flynn as Viola, opposite – what a cast – Mark Rylance as Olivia and Stephen Fry as Malvolio, is a singular example).

Ursula Mills as the magnetic, horny Olivia and Alfie Gledhill as Olivia/Cesario. Photo Brett Boardman. 

As I subside into the age of the lean and slippered pantaloon I sometimes worry that I’ve grown tired of Shakespeare; but perhaps it’s more a gloomy sense that companies and directors have lost faith in him, that something must be done to him, that somehow he has to be reimagined to remain valid, that wearies me. 

So I approached this production with apprehension rather than anticipation; I get Viola as man/woman/man, but why did the gender bending need to be exacerbated by the male Malvolio becoming the female Malvolia – no stage tradition there. Sure it doubles down on the play’s homoeroticism, but that’s already well enough established by the Olivia/ Cesario/ Orsino triangle in the original.

But I cared little after the magnificent second act performance by Jane Montgomery Griffiths, who transformed the officious palace factotum into a noble, wretched figure worthy of Samuel Beckett.

And it’s the joy of Shakespeare’s words and the performances throughout that overcome any qualms about this Twelfth Night.

From “If music be the food of love” to “hey ho, the wind and the rain” (the play’s memorable lines take up a full four pages of my thumb-ravaged Oxford Book of Quotations) Twelfth Night is a play to be listened to; Rylance says that Shakespeare’s audiences said they went to “hear” a play, not “see” it; when those memorable lines and phrases burst on you, it creates a never-ending tremor of pleasure.

They took a while getting through in the scramble of the opening scenes, but as the characters began to bite, the joy of the language – spoken and sung – rang through. Twelfth Night is Shakespeare’s most musical play, and Sarah Blasko’s tunes, performed by Tomáš Kantor, have the perfect mix of gaiety and menace.

Kantor is a standout as the wise fool Feste (Harold Bloom astutely calls the jester the only sane character in a wild play) and is matched by Ursula Mills as the magnetic, horny Olivia, who rather overpowers Gledhill’s Cesario.

Garth Holcombe had much fun with Orsino – which is about all you can hope for from that primping tosspot of a duke, and I’d like to have seen more of Isabel Burton’s Sebastian, but Shakespeare doesn’t give him/her or their savior Antonio (Chrissy Mae) much airtime in the play. 

Amy Hack’s tight and gleefully vengeful Maria, Keith Agius as the inglorious wannabe Falstaff, Toby Belch, and the callisthenic Mike Howlett as the sop Andrew Aguecheek do their nasty business on Malvolia with a relish you share until you don’t any longer. Photo Brett Boardman

Amy Hack’s tight and gleefully vengeful Maria, Keith Agius as the inglorious wannabe Falstaff, Toby Belch, and the callisthenic Mike Howlett as the sop Andrew Aguecheek do their nasty business on Malvolia with a relish you share until you don’t any longer.

This Twelfth Night looks and sounds fine (Charles Davis, Verity Hampson and David Bergman designed) and moves well (Nigel Poulton did the fighting, Elle Evangelista the choreography), and Fairbairn marshalls all her forces with skill and purpose.

We owe Bell Shakespeare a debt of gratitude for keeping the great playwright going in this country as artistic programming fashions come and go; this Twelfth Night may have bent a little to the winds of theatrical fashion de jour, but, happily, after some trepidation, it didn’t break. 

Twelfth Night runs until 19 August 2023 at the Heath Ledger Theatre, before playing Bunbury Regional Entertainment Centre 24 August and Albany Entertainment Centre 27 August

Pictured top:  Jane Montgomery Griffiths (centre) is magnificent as Malvolia, pictured here with Mike Howlett and Amy Hack. Photo Brett Boardman. 

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Author —
David Zampatti

David Zampatti has been a student politician, a band manager, the Freo Dockers’ events guy, a bar owner in California, The West Australian’s theatre critic and lots of other crazy stuff. He goes to every show he’s reviewing with the confident expectation it will be the best thing he’s ever seen.

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