by Lynn on June 3, 2024

in The Passionate Playgoer

Live and in person at the Festival Theatre, Stratford Festival, Stratford, Ont. Plays until Oct. 26, 2024.

Written by William Shakespeare

Directed by Seana McKenna

Set and costumes by Christina Poddubiuk

Lighting by Bonnie Beecher

Composer, Paul Shildon

Sound by Verne Good

Choreographer, Stephanie Graham

Cast:  David Collins

Laura Condlln

Sarah Dodd

Austin Eckert

Deborah Hay

Jessica B. Hill

Andrew Iles

Tarique Lewis

Vanessa Sears

André Sills

Emilio Vieira

Scott Wentworth

Rylan Wilkie

And a chorus

A beautiful production, both acted and directed, that illuminates love in its many forms.

The Story. Twelfth Night is a play about love in many guises. It starts with Duke Orsino of Illyria who is smitten with the Countess Olivia. But she spurns his many entreaties because she is in mourning for her brother’s death. She has sworn off men for seven years!

In the meantime, there has been a storm that has separated twins, Viola and her brother Sebastian. She thinks he’s dead. He’s not…separately they wash ashore on Illyria.

Viola decides to dress as a man (for protection) and go to work for the Duke as his page named Cesario. But instantly, she falls secretly in love with him. Orsino uses Cesario to curry the favour of Olivia. And as luck would have it Olivia is smitten with Cesario too.

Sebastian also appears to complicate matters further. So now we have mistaken identity with Cesario spurning the advances of Olivia, which changes when Sebastian enters the scene.

There is also Malvolio who works for Olivia. Malvolio is the officious head of Olivia’s household and is secretly smitten with Olivia. Other members of Olivia’s household tend to make fun of Malvolio. So there is lots going on in this comedy with dark touches. 

Twelfth Night is a wonderful, funny, bitter-sweet play of unrequited and requited love, mistaken identity and yearning.

The Production. Designer Christina Poddubiuk has created a spare and elegant design for this production, (set in 1967) where a few round rock-like props etc. at the bottom of the stairs suggest the tasteful richness of both Duke Orsino’s and the Countess Olivia’s houses. A mobile that looks like various sails is suspended above the stage, echoing the sailing-storm motif at the beginning of the production.

Poddubiuk’s costumes beautifully illuminate the characters, their social standing and their elegance. Duke Orsino (André Sills) wears casual but tasteful pastel shirts, jackets and pants. André Sills plays Orsino as a man comfortable in his style. He’s briming with emotion, his love for Olivia (a regal Vanessa Sears) and his yearning to win her over. He is giddy when he hears of her devotion to her dead brother—in mourning for seven years which means she’s giving up men and their dalliances. There is delicious confusion from Orsino when he develops a closeness to his page Cesario (Viola in disguise, with Jessica B. Hill playing him). The furtive looks to Cesario, Cesario’s secret looks back to the Duke, are beautifully orchestrated by director Seana McKenna who directs with care and supreme intelligence.

Seana McKenna does something I’ve never seen a director do with Twelfth Night—she visually establishes the love and affection that Viola and Sebastian (Austin Eckert) have for one another by having both brother and sister appear on the boat (before the storm that will separate them). They good naturedly josh one another (a gentle, joking tap on the arm) and reveal their closeness in affection. Then with a thunderclap there is a startled reaction when they realize they will be separated and they will think the other has drowned. It’s such a simple bit of theatrical business, but it’s resounding in establishing the huge emotional cost it is for Viola to think she has lost her brother. This makes Viola emotionally fragile and desperate to move forward, to offer her services as a page to the Duke.

Jessica B. Hill is a gracious, graceful Viola. She speaks the dialogue with assurance and confidence. As Cesario, Jessica B. Hill is a revelation. She wears a trim man’s blue suit, vest and tie and a short, curly wig to hide her long hair. The result is the understated essence of a young, courtly man who can charm both a Duke and a Countess who think this is a man. Jessica B. Hill doesn’t force the masculinity of Cesario, rather she underplays it. A leg placed just so and a hand in the pants pocket is the subtlest relaxed pose of a young man. And there is such yearning and longing in her love for the Duke, certainly since she must suppress any overt show of it.

While the Countess is subdued in her mourning (wearing all black, initially, until she sees and is smitten by Cesario), her household is raucous. Her drunken uncle Sir Toby Belch (an irreverent Scott Wentworth) is trying to gull money from his dim-witted friend Sir Andrew Aguecheek, played with great humour by Rylan Wilkie because of Sir Andrew’s cluelessness. Joining them in irreverence is Sarah Dodd as Maria, a saucy, mischievous confident to Olivia, but in cahoots with Sir Toby.  The character that Sir Toby, Sir Andrew and Maria plot to bedevil is Olivia’s steward, Malvolio, usually played as a man, but here played by Laura Condlln who is simply brilliant.

Malvolio is a repressed, officious soul. She is dressed in a black skirt and jacket that is fitted and buttoned to the neck. She wears black, flat shoes. Her facial expression is pinched and disdainful of everything around her. Her arms are tight to her body. When she makes notes of transgressions, it’s in a little black book so you can imagine how small and tight her handwriting is. Everything in this performance screams ‘repressed.’ So that when Malvolio finds a letter to her thinking it’s a love letter from Olivia—when it really is a trick of Maria, Sir Toby and Sir Andrew–Malvolio’s body language becomes free, expansive and joyful. It’s both funny and heartbreaking.

Offering clownish wisdom and song to both Orsino’s and Olivia’s houses, is Feste a clown and musician, played as a free-spirited hippy by Deborah Hay. Her voice is pure and wistful and her comic timing is impeccable.

Comment. Seana McKenna has beautifully illuminated the heart and soul of the play, never tipping it too much into comedy and sacrificing the ache of it, but also balancing both the comedy and the heartache in equal measure.  I loved this production.

The Stratford Festival presents:

Plays until Oct. 26, 2024.

Running Time: 3 hours approx. (1 intermission)

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

1 ed lamb June 4, 2024 at 8:44 pm

The Trevor Nunn production with the RSC, later filmed, with an outstanding cast, opens with the twins performing aboard the ship and the audience sees clearly their affection for each other, details of their fight to survive, and her incredible sense of loss. Imogen Stubbs is superb as Viola and Richard E. Grant magnificent as Sir Andrew Aguecheek.


2 Lynn June 5, 2024 at 7:27 am