by Lynn on June 2, 2017

in The Passionate Playgoer

At the Festival Theatre, Stratford Festival, Stratford, Ont.

Written by William Shakespeare
Directed by Martha Henry
Designed by John Pennoyer
Trees created by Ken Dubblesyne
Lighting by Louise Guinand
Composed and sound designed by Reza Jacobs
Cast: Sarah Afful
Rod Beattie
Michael Blake
Matthew G. Brown
Brent Carver
Geraint Wyn Davies
Mac Fyfe
Farhang Ghajar
Gordon S. Miller
Mercedes Morris
Lucy Peacock
Monice Peter
Tom Rooney
Stephen Russell
E.B. Smith
Johnathan Sousa
Shannon Taylor
Emilio Vieira
Brigit Wilson
Tim Ziegler

An exquisite production about music, love and Brent Carver.

The Story. Duke Orsino of Illyria loves Olivia but she’s too busy mourning her late brother to bother with him. Viola and her brother Sebastian survive a shipwreck and she lands in Illyria and thinks her brother died. She disguises herself like a man (and names herself Cesario) and goes to work for the Duke. And she falls in love with him. Orsino uses Cesario to plead his case to Olivia who is smitten with this young ‘man’, There is Sir Toby Belch, Olivia’s uncle, Sir Andrew Aguecheek, Sir Toby’s simple-minded, hilarious friend, Malvolio, Olivia’s dour major domo, and Feste an impish clown who connects them all.

The Production. Director Martha Henry’s production is exquisite. As we enter the theatre we are faced with three of the most magical looking ‘glass-metal’ trees created by craftsman Ken Dubblestyne. They shine over Illyria in Act I and in Act II with a maneuvering of some branches those trees become one large bridal bouquet. Breathtaking.

One does not usually consider Feste the clown as the star of Twelfth Night but in Martha Henry’s production he is and it makes perfect sense. Feste connects the households of Orsino and Olivia and generally comments on the larger world of the play. He works for Olivia but he also sings, for money, for Orsino to try and cheer him up from his love-sickness. Feste sees the folly in Orsino and Olivia’s situations and in most other situations too, and is quietly fearless in expressing his thoughts. He uses wit, humour, punning, quick thinking and common sense to illuminate the silliness around him. And he sings. And since Feste is played by Brent Carver, he sings beautifully.

Carver begins and ends the production with song, mostly a cappella. His voice soars with plaintive longing and bitter-sweet yearning. He accompanies himself by delicately tapping illuminated bowls with a small rod that creates a haunting bong sound. Or he uses the rod to drag around the edge of the bowl creating an eerie high sound, also haunting. Carver is impish, sprightly, gently considerate but with a point to his logic. It is a beguiling performance.

There is such fastidiousness to Henry’s production. Every single character on that stage is played with a full-bodied, breathing life, whether a leading player or a silent on-looking servant. The servants stand on the periphery of a scene but they are totally engaged in it. They listen and react (this should be a no-brainer, but truly, it’s a rarity when they are directed to do it as well as it’s done in Twelfth Night). For example, it’s not pulling focus to watch Brigit Wilson as Lily, Olivia’s attendant, notice another character talking to Olivia and react to what is being said using the subtlest of body language, smile and exit. It’s not distracting because that bit of stage business in fact draws the audience further in to the main conversation between Olivia and that other character, and because Lily is listening hard, so are we. The fact that she sees the humour, conveys it to us.

Characters make entrances from the darkness with ease and a gentle surprise. For example, Malvolio enters, played by Rod Beattie as a straight-backed, dour, condescending prig, he appears slowly from the gloom of upstage, long walking stick at hand for affect, looking as if he has smelled something unpleasant.

Olivia’s movement from being a woman in deep mourning to one who can hardly wait to get out of these black clothes is also affecting, certainly as Shannon Taylor plays her. At first Olivia wears all black with a veil and is properly saddened by her brother’s death. When she meets Cesario her manner changes. Her attitude becomes almost buoyant because she is smitten with him. The veil is ditched. Olivia is eager to see Cesario again. Then she wears a bright green silk long jacket of sorts over the black dress until finally she ditches the black for good. As Olivia Taylor brings her natural patrician manner to the role. She is sophisticated, sensual, bursting with life as she is attracted to this young ‘man’.

The cast is loaded with actors who are a joy to watch as they inhabit their characters. Sarah Afful can convince you she is a delicate, confident woman as Viola, as well as a sprightly young man as Cesario. E.B. Smith gives Orsino a courtliness and command. Sir Toby Belch, as played by Geraint Wyn Davies, is red-faced, blustery and full of abandon as an amusing drunk. Lucy Peacock plays Maria as an impish woman, in love with Sir Toby, with her own kind of humour but with more maturity, and can control what is going on. Tom Rooney as Sir Andrew Aguecheek is an atomic bomb of comic invention. He has an arsenal of ticks, reactions and double and triple takes that realize humour when you least expect it. In a scene he tries to one-up Cesario by speaking the few words of French he knows. When Cesario replies in fluent French Rooney’s reaction, in mid-step, is priceless. He is so gifted in comedy (and every other kind of theatre) that the audience just waits to laugh at anything he does. It means Rooney must up the game to earn the laugh and he does.

Henry also uses the fact that Viola and her twin brother Sebastian are both in Illyria, unbeknownst to the other. So scene after scene has one leaving a scene just while the other is entering a scene, ‘just’ missing seeing each other.

One instance perhaps plays it too close. Malvolio is sent to find Cesario who has just left Olivia. He passes by two people; one is a seaman the other is Sebastian. Malvolio rushes between them and seems to notice the seaman and perhaps recognize him, but doesn’t note Sebastian. I thought that odd—had he ‘looked’ at Sebastian he would have mistaken him for Viola. It’s the only scene that I looked at with knitted eye-brows.

Comment. When Martha Henry directs a production of anything, she proves again and again that ‘just’ doing the play without pyrotechnics or dazzle is the most resounding way to illuminate the play. She is never by the book; never matter-of-fact. She brings her own quirky way of looking at a play—Feste as the star for example—and it’s always enlightening. To repeat, Martha Henry’s production of Twelfth Night is exquisite.

Produced by the Stratford Festival.

Opened: May 29, 2017.
Closes: Oct. 15, 2017.
Cast: 20; 14 men, 6 women.
Running Time: 2 hours, 45 minutes approx.

Leave a Comment

Respectful comments are accepted on this site as long as they are accompanied by a verifiable name and a verifiable e-mail address. Posts that are slanderous, libelous or personally derogatory will not be approved.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Trixie June 2, 2017 at 2:11 pm

I, totally, agree with your review, Lynn. I loved this production.


2 Medina Krause June 8, 2017 at 3:10 pm

Until recently, I hadn’t visited Stratford in over 20 years. It was great to see Twelfth Night at the Stratford Festival. I thoroughly enjoyed this play, especially those of Geraint Wyn Davies, Rod Beattie, and Brent Carver. I actually bought the play recently, and I’m currently reading it.