Blasko adds a tender touch to Twelfth Night

2 August 2023

Singer-songwriter Sarah Blasko may not seem like an obvious choice of composer for Bell Shakespeare’s retelling of Twelfth Night, but as she tells Ara Jansen, there’s more to this comedy than initially meets the eye.

Sarah Blasko initially wondered why someone would want her to score a Shakespearean comedy. Surely Twelfth Night should be left in the hands of someone with, perhaps, a lighter style.

But if music is indeed the food of love, Blasko – with her wistful, melancholic sounds – was exactly the person to play with Bell Shakespeare’s fresh twist on the classic comedy.

Touring nationally this month (including stops in Perth, Mandurah Bunbury and Albany), Twelfth Night features all new music from the multi-award-winning singer, songwriter, musician and producer. The production also celebrates the 400th anniversary of the play’s publication in 1623 as part of Shakespeare’s First Folio.

Blasko is no stranger to Shakespeare. A longtime fan, she got familiar with the bard as part of English literature and film studies at university and over a decade ago worked with Bell on music for Hamlet. She even appeared on stage as part of a chorus of players, which she helped coach.

“The opportunity to do theatre, film or dance doesn’t come around that often,” she says. “It’s a bit scary but on the other hand it usually pushes me somewhere I have not been before. With theatre you have to be pretty adaptable in a range of different styles. I don’t know if that’s me, which is why this project just felt right, because they wanted me and my style.

‘Twelfth Night’ is packed with shenanigans. Pictured: Mike Howlett and Keith Agius (Jane Montgomery Griffiths is in the background). Photo: Brett Boardman

“What I love about Shakespeare is that because you have to dig deep into the language, there’s something you discover each time … there’s always something new.”

Like the Shakespearean play of that name, Twelfth Night is a comedy of errors – it ends in a wedding and is packed with mistaken identities and misunderstandings, ensuring intrigue and shenanigans. Viola is separated from her twin Sebastian and both think the other dead. Washed up in a strange new land, Viola is determined to survive and disguises herself as a man to secure a position in the household of Duke Orsino, with whom she falls in love. Orsino is in love with the Countess Olivia and sends Viola to court her for him, but Olivia falls for Viola instead. Sebastian arrives, causing a flood of mistaken identity, and marries Olivia. Viola reveals she is a girl and marries Orsino. 

While there’s music throughout the production, the majority of Blasko’s work was with Feste the jester (played by actor, singer and pianist Tomáš Kantor) who works for Olivia and while considered the fool is actually sharp, observant, clever and wise.

What I love about Shakespeare is that because you have to dig deep into the language, there’s something you discover each time.

Director Heather Fairbairn admits to being fascinated by the enigmatic nature of the play, which transcends time and place. That’s why she chose not to specify the setting, allowing Blasko’s music to lend an “otherworldly feel” to the piece and asking audiences to find light in the dark.

Sydney’s Bell Shakespeare is renowned for its innovative approach to Shakespeare’s works and this production subverts standard casting approaches regarding gender. The character of Malvolio is transformed into Malvolia (played by Jane Montgomery Griffiths) while Viola (Alfie Gledhill), Sebastian (Isabel Burton) and Antonio (Mae Lacanilao) are played by actors of a different sex to the original Shakespearean characters.

“Though I had never read Twelfth Night, for many years I had passed it off as a light and fluffy comedy,” Blasko says. “A couple of my friends told me not to write it off and when I spoke to Heather, I realised I was the right person [to be the work’s composer] because my music leans more to the melancholy.

“What a production can lack is that while leaning into the comedy, the main characters often have a high level of grief. Heather was interested in exploring the idea of gender and how it’s perceived, especially within this comedy of errors, and leaning into that to make it more a topic of conversation.”

The musician says bringing a little more of the grief and sadness to the surface with the music definitely made sense to her – “the lyrics are quite beautiful and there is a sadness”. When she looked at the work through this lens, it made better sense and she started to see her place within it.

The script provides Feste’s lyrics but it’s up to the composer to create the music. Blasko watched other filmed productions to get a feel for how different people treated the material. She singles out Ben Kingsley’s Feste, in the 1996 adaptation, as being a “tender and beautiful” interpretation of the songs by Irish classical and Celtic musician Shaun Davey.

Sarah Blasko (centre) in rehearsals for ‘Twelfth Night’ with Bell Shakespeare. Photo: Brett Boardman

“Many of the productions of this play are rompish and I wanted something that felt tender and that version gave me a mood and a place to start. There’s a rhythm to Shakespeare’s writing and that gives you a lot of what you need. I wanted to make it feel modern and timeless but not too modern. Equally in work like this, there’s also the costumes, sets and lighting design to consider.

“There’s a great comedic moment when the characters have to sing around the piano and the song is all bits of well-known songs from the era. It’s drunken singing late at night. The demo of me doing that which was given to the cast was fairly embarrassing. I had to put on these voices and give it a sense of comedy, and I’m not an actor. But seeing it performed later, I have to hand it to them for understanding what I was trying to do.”

While Blasko says she isn’t necessarily planning on running a theatre stream alongside her musical career, she’s always open to interesting offers. Once Twelfth Night finishes its 25-date stand around the country she’ll be concentrating on her seventh album. The follow-up to 2018’s Depth of Field is finished and should be out in early 2024.

Twelfth Night plays the State Theatre Centre of WA, 16 – 19 August 2023.

The production then tours regional WA:

Mandurah Performing Arts Centre, 22 August 2023
Bunbury Entertainment Centre, 24 August 2023
Albany Entertainment Centre, 27 August 2023

Pictured top: Sarah Blasko. Photo: Kylie Coutts

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Author —
Ara Jansen

Ara Jansen is a freelance journalist. Words, bright colour, books, music, art, fountain pens, good conversation, interesting people and languages make her deeply happy. A longtime music journalist and critic, she’s the former music editor of The West Australian. Being in the pool next to the playground is one of her favourite places, ever.

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