Twelfth Night and it’s as far away from Christmas as possible. But in the middle of September John Bell’s Shakespeare Company takes its audiences on a journey from the isle of Illyria all the way to Melbourne’s Federation Square – and does so without compromising the eloquence and rhetoric of Shakespeare – or that of the stereotyped Aussie.
With a Brechtian set a mountain high pile of clothes offers camouflage, wings and a green room as the players choose their costumes from a veritable bombsite. Equipped with a motley array of salvaged items including cardboard boxes, household goods and of course a tattered copy of Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare the performance creatively challenges our expectations by having numerous cast members play multiple gender roles.
Indeed had feminist and gender critic Judith Butler been amongst the audience I’m confident she would have much to say especially on the performativity of gender. Butler argues that ‘gay is to straight not as copy is to original but as copy is to copy‘ so while the opportunity to provide a glimpse of how exclusively male Elizabethan actors would have dominated the stage is outdated Director Lee Lewis points us toward some manifestations of gender and sexuality far more interesting. In fact the success of the play is indebted to the negotiation of sensibilities between actors and characters whose brilliant performances (while dressed in drag or not) provide much of the comedy.
As the crafty but flirtatious Maria (but also pirate screeching Antonio) Brent Hill was particularly triumphant in providing much of the play’s passion and humour while his ultimate soulmate Sir Toby Belch (who also played Sebastian) Adam Booth lived up to the challenges of multiple roles with aplomb. Max Cullen as Feste the Fool was also an instant favourite and more so after his first blues rhapsody which drew unmitigated applause from the audience.
With excellent use of set and props, sound effects and music the flaws were few. The lighting was occasionally slightly jarring (intentional perhaps?) and the silences often were a tad too long allowing the heavy sighs of some of the less patient members of the audience to be quite audible.
As a play of mistaken identities the various layers of concealment (female character pretending to be a male character) as well as multiple role playing (male actor performing as female character as well as male character) was enough to add more confusion to a displaced plot with dichotomous locale – but did the play succeed?
Well if the final song is to be believed you have to agree: it sure feels GOOD!