Arts Review

Twelfth Night

Dr Gemma Regan


A reinvigorated and entertaining interpretation of medieval comedy celebrating 400 years of love’s follies with farce and fol-de-rol’s!


Thunder and lightning greets the audience as they are seated, recreating the storm that opens and closes Shakespeare’s popular comedy Twelfth Night. A melancholic tune from the crimson-clad and ruffed Feste (Tomáš Kantor) the androgynous jester of witty wordplay opens the show and the iconic phrase ‘If music be the food of love, play on,’ from lovesick Duke Orsino (Garth Holcombe). A fabulous opening where the pathos was palpable.


Bell Shakespeare’s hilarious Twelfth Night was alas only for one night at the Redland Performing Arts Centre, as part of the esteemed Bell Shakespeare’s National Tour travelling to 25 of the smaller venues across Australia.


It is one of Shakespeare’s funniest rom-coms with drunken characters like Toby Belch, the usual mistaken identities and a lot of cross-dressing. All are still surprisingly current for the 21st century, despite it being the 400th Anniversary of its publication as part of the most treasured literature in history, Shakespeare’s First Folio.


Bell Shakespeare is renowned for updating Shakespeare for the 20th and 21st-century audiences and has been delivering cutting-edge interpretations to country towns for 33 years since the vision of founder, John Bell AO stated that all Australians should have the opportunity to experience Shakespeare’s works.


Director Heather Fairbairn has given this production the magical Bell Shakespeare touch with her extensive experience of working with the Royal Opera House and the Royal Court Theatre in London. It has also modernised the 'hey nonny’s' featuring original music from ARIA Award-winner Sarah Blasko.


Twelfth Night is the tale of Viola (Alfie Gledhill), who arrives in the city of Illyria after a terrible shipwreck where she believes her identical twin Sebastian has perished. She disguises herself as a man in true Shakespeare style and works for the dashing Duke Orsino (Garth Holcombe), inevitably falling in love. However, the Duke loves Countess Olivia (Ursula Mills) but Olivia is attracted to the disguised Viola creating the infamous Shakespeare love triangle between three people who are not what they seem. 


Shakespeare loved gender fluidity, confusing the stereotyped gender roles using costumes, with only men allowed to be actors at that time it further confused the audience, as in the case of Viola where you have a man playing a woman, playing a man!


Director Heather Fairbairn has further subverted gender in a ‘timely exploration of the fluidity of gender and sexuality’ by assembling a diverse and talented cast. The lead female role of Viola disguised as a male Cesario is played by Alfie Gledhill and her brother Sebastian is played by Isabel Burton. 


The beloved male character of Malvolio has also been transformed into Malvolia, played by award-winning actor, writer, director, accomplished academic and Helpmann nominee Jane Montgomery Griffiths. The female switch to Malvolia has been done many times before, despite never really working. It always seems to contradict the victimisation of Malvolio, who is one of Shakespeare’s most complex and intriguing characters. Nevertheless, Griffiths was superb, sporting a skin-tight yellow plastic outfit complete with cross garters to become the pathetic character borne of feckless love.


With the sly servants, a weedy but acrobatic love-sick Sir Andrew (Mike Howlett) and the irrepressible drunken Toby Belch (Keith Agius) dressed as a Scotsman, they portray the worst of human nature and illustrate that all is never what it seems…Agius plays an excellent sly drunkard as Sir Toby Belch, who conspires with an amusing Howlett as Sir Andrew to be a very entertaining pair. 


One of the best-reinvented characters is the multitalented Tomás Kantor’s fool as Feste. His vocal range, comical musical timing, physical slapstick and words as sharp as swords were brilliant at demonstrating one who is ‘better a witty fool than a foolish wit’! Feste provides the fourth wall between the audience and the characters and is ‘wise enough to play the Fool,’ by pointing out the follies and flaws of each character. He is central to the play’s demeanour and he was outstanding, portraying the manipulative and clever fool with a measured camp twist. 


Charles Davis’ costumes were eclectic and timeless with the tam o‘shantered Toby Belch, Feste’s shiny red-heeled boots and Elizabethan ruff, and Sir Andrew’s putrid 70’s orange suit. His set was simple but effective with an upright piano, a few pot plants, some large branches and the clever use of a transparent blurry curtain behind which characters would transform or spy on one another.


The music of Australian singer and composer and three-time ARIA Award winner Sarah Black retained the original lyrics and was an emotive, yet melancholic addition to the play. Feste’s closing song was mournful and tragic, rather than the usual jovial ‘Hey ho, the wind and the rain’ creating a more sombre feel to the end of one of Shakespeare’s funniest comedies.

Bell Shakespeare’s reinvigorated version of Twelfth Night is an entertaining modernised interpretation of medieval comedy celebrating 400 years of love’s follies with farce and fol-de-rol’s!


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