STRATFORD, Ont. — A pair of metallic trees dominate the Festival Theatre stage at the beginning of Twelfth Night. They suggest a world going sterile — a mood not really softened when Brent Carver’s muted Feste sings to the rueful strains of composer Rena Jacobs’s music. And is there any emotion beyond languor when E.B. Smith’s Duke Orsino speaks those famous lines — “if music be the food of love play on?”
By the time the evening ends, designer John Pennoyer has allowed those trees traces of greenery. Love, after all, is possible. Children suffering the anguish of separation can be reunited. Marriages can happen. Yet even here the aura of happiness hanging over the central lovers — Viola and the Duke, her twin brother Sebastian and Olivia — can seem tentative and transient. The greenery on those trees is not complete. Furthermore, can anyone predict a truly happy ending for such dysfunctional individuals as Sir Tony Belch, Sir Andrew Aguecheek and the puritanical steward, Malvolio? As for Carver’s wraith-like presence as Feste — well, let’s just say that Olivia’s melancholy Fool is around to remind us of time’s passing and with it the maxim that “youth’s a stuff that will not endure.”
Of course, it’s possible to see Twelfth Night as a boisterous romantic comedy and no more. So it’s a virtue of Martha Henry’s wise and discerning production for the Stratford Festival that she brings out the play’s darker textures. For all the evening’s moments of humour, we still remain conscious of the emotional toll that unfulfilled longing can exact. And even the rapture of a new-found relationship carries the inevitability of mortality.
It seems significant that, mere months after he completed Twelfth Night, Shakespeare had embarked on Hamlet, the first of the great tragedies, and on Troilus And Cressida in all its soured rage. So Twelfth Night seems almost a transitional comedy, clouding the sunshine of its predecessor, As You Like It, with the reality of a more troubled and uncertain world.
So it’s a play in which laughter comes almost as a release. There are some lovely comic moments involving the shipwrecked Viola who enters Orsino’s court disguised as a pageboy named Cesario and is assigned to carry messages between the love-lorn Duke and Olivia, the unresponsive object of his passion. Sarah Afful’s quicksilver characterization shows Viola’s resourcefulness, also a capacity for mischief . There’s a nimbleness in the way she steers her way through the comic complications of a plot that sees Shannon Taylor’s excellent Olivia falling for her big time because she thinks Viola is a boy, with Viola in her turn becoming smitten with the Duke.
Afful handles the Shakespearean verse with ease and confidence. But she also conveys a sense of Viola’s inner turmoil. The urgency with which she delivers the famous “willow cabin” speech indicates a vulnerability Viola can’t quite conceal. Beyond that, she is still coping with the loss of her twin brother, Sebastian, from whom she became separated in the shipwreck. And Olivia has been mourning the death of her own brother.
At Stratford this summer, Illyria is therefore not quite the golden land that some might expect of this play, rewarding though Martha Henry’s production may be. That great Shakespearean scholar, Anne Barton, saw as it a work in which “serious issues and events mingled perplexingly with revelry and apparent madness.” And in this production the revelry and the comedy can sometimes be uneasy — deliberately so.
This is particularly true of Olivia’s household where the dissolute Sir Toby Belch and that knock-kneed nonentity, Sir Andrew Aguecheek, concoct a cruel plot to convince Olivia’s prim and proper steward Malvolio, that she is in love with him. This leads to the famous letter scene in which Malvolio reads aloud a bogus message, in which Olivia professes her adoration. Shakespeare gives an actor ample opportunity here to turn the moment into a comic tour de force — and we’ve seen it happen often at Stratford. But what’s interesting in this production is Rod Beattie’s low-key approach to the scene and to the character. That leaves us uncomfortably aware of the underlying viciousness of what’s happening.
From the beginning this Malvolio has been less a pompous, self-serving household tyrant than he is a starchy, humourless bureaucrat who is devoted to his lady and has little time for deadbeats like Sir Toby and Sir Andrew. So as we see him solemnly reading that letter, and attempting to work his face into the artificial smile that his mistress seemingly expects of him, and later as we see him display his yellow cross-gartered legs as a misconceived expression of his ardor for her, we do laugh. As his Wingfield years have shown, Beattie has always been a master of dry comedy, and it’s working effectively with Malvolio. However there’s also poignancy in what’s happening to him: malicious sport is being made of an essentially lonely individual, and by the time we see him caged as a madman, we aren’t laughing at all.
And what of his tormenters? Geraint Wyn Davies gives us a Sir Toby who is a swaggering, raucous drunk — good company in the bar room, perhaps, but an untrustworthy, self-serving opportunist who will find himself forced into a loveless marriage. Robert Rooney, wonderful as a gangling, hopelessly malleable Sir Andrew, breaks your heart even as he makes you laugh. “I was adored once,” he tells us wistfully, and those few words tell us everything we need to know about this failure of a man.
So the human comedy has many rooms in this production, not all of them happy. And it benefits from an acting company responsive to its shimmering needs — an excellent Lucy Peacock, not so gentle as Olivia’s conniving gentlewoman, Maria; an appealing Michael Blake as Viola’s missing twin, Sebastian, and Stephen Russell making the most of the small role of Sebastian’s loyal friend, Antonio; E.B. Smith, fine as an all-too-human Orsino.
Finally there is Brent Carver, a quietly endearing presence as Feste, the play’s melancholy conscience. He may be singing of the wind and the rain at the end, but his muted farewell also carries the rustle of autumn leaves.
(Twelfth Night continues to Oct. 21. Further information at 1 800 567 1600 or stratfordfestival.ca)