Stratford, Ontario — Twelfth Night or What You Will is Shakespeare’s only double-titled play, which is all the more fitting for the Stratford Festival’s 2017 theme of “What’s in a name?” Like many of the Bard’s works, it deals with the machinations we sometimes go through to achieve self-identity. Characters pretend to be others to eventually become more of who they are no matter what they go by to get by.
Director Martha Henry, who recently helmed Stratford’s Birmingham Conservatory, believes that Twelfth Night’s is popular because it is “so bitter-sweet in its humour.” The unsettling darkness that accompanies this play’s lightheartedness and seemingly happy ending is what makes this play endure. Sadly, most directors miss out on balancing that combo.
Kudos to Henry for allowing the play to unfold the way it is written, and for encouraging the kind of collaboration between director, design staff, and cast that makes this production sing.
The play opens on the solitary figure of Feste (Brent Carver) singing a “love-song.” He begins a cappella, but soon is accompanied by the gentle thrumming of a guitar (lovely compositions by Reza Jacobs). Feste will repeat the song with its famous refrain “Youth's a stuff will not endure” in Act II, and its message of transformation and revelation will resonate throughout the show.
The main catalyst for all of this self-reflection comes in the guise of Viola (Sarah Afful) who is shipwrecked and lost in a land of danger. She is estranged from her twin brother Sebastian (Michael Blake) and must disguise herself as “Cesario,” the lovelorn Duke Orsino’s (E.B. Smith) male page.
Orsino is pursuing the mourning Olivia (Shannon Taylor), whose household is run amok with her drunken uncle, Sir Toby Belch (Geraint Wyn Davies), the mischievous Maria (Lucy Peacock), and the mooch-worthy, Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Tom Rooney). The butt of their jokes is Olivia’s steward, the imperious Malvolio (Rod Beattie).
It is difficult to resist one of Shakespeare’s most charming heroines, Viola, and Afful does not disappoint with her adroit portrayal of a girl playing a boy to win a man. Smith’s Orsino is a commanding presence who makes a deft switch of emotions at the end.
The highlight of the show is the comedic trio of Davies, Peacock, and Rooney. Davies with muttonchops and a boisterous brogue makes a worthy Belch, and Peacock’s twinkling Maria is a worthy counterpart for the besotted old knight. Rooney as Sir Andrew is a flaxen-haired, hopping hoot. His every utterance and deft cavorting repeatedly brings the house down in laughter.
Beattie’s Malvolio initially comes off as too light and not nearly obnoxious enough to warrant his treatment, yet it is this understated interpretation that brings home how harsh the tricks have been and provides the right amount of bitter this sweet play needs.
Carver’s soft and mellifluous voice as Feste is balm for when the play is too angsty, and he provides an ethical center even when he is crafty. Having the character play lighted singing bowls (Jacobs) is also an inspired touch.
John Pennoyer’s Illyria is almost magical with an ingenuous trio of turning trees standing for the many love/hate triangles in the play.
Shakespeare’s first title for the play, Twelfth Night comes from the religious holiday the Feast of the Epiphany, but it also signals the end of a period of much revelry and merry-making. It’s a time to go all topsy-turvy, and perhaps find out what’s what, or, better yet, What You Will.