Sixth Side Theatre’s rendition of Shakespeare’s gender-confused comedy provides proof beyond measure that Shakespearean humour is not exclusive to tweed-jacketed academics. Twelfth Night follows Viola, a twin estranged form her brother by a shipwreck, who, donning a male disguise, sets out to aid Duke Orsino in his wooing of the Lady Olivia. Becky Latcham and Esalan Gates’ co-directional debut deserves commendation for its reinvigoration of Shakespeare’s 400-year-old comedy. Every line seems to have been deconstructed in rehearsal, the comedy wrung from every word, making the production well worth the walk up to Trevelyan College.
The half-round stage of the Dowrick Suite provides the ideal dramatic space for a comedy that relies so heavily on the audience’s co-operation and suspension of disbelief. The theatre’s intimacy forces actor and audience into constant acknowledgement of one another, meaning that, throughout the performance, the audience feel complicit to the dramatic events unfolding before them. Daniel Vilela, in the role of Feste, works tirelessly throughout the production to maintain the audience’s engagement with the comedy, repeatedly breaking the fourth wall through sardonic asides. At one point, Vilela goes so far as to take a seat in the audience, thoroughly confusing the distinction between audience and actor and consolidating the play’s topsy-turvy and meta-dramatic nature.
Latcham and Gates seem determined to push the audience’s imagination to its extreme, choosing an extremely minimalistic set that relies upon sound and lighting effects to indicate changes of setting and scene. Sadly, it is here that he production runs into its major flaw. The somewhat sporadic lighting adjustments often occur mid-scene and distract at times from the performance on stage as the audience’s attempt to distinguish different scenes and settings.
Another cause for confusion is Latcham and Gates’ decision to present Shakespeare’s comedy in a 1920s setting. This is communicated exclusively through the production’s costumes and incidental music. While this is sure to have been a thought-through decision, the audience themselves are left uncertain as to why this particular decade provided a meaningful backdrop for Shakespeare’s 16th century comedy.
The cast’s stunning and unwaveringly energetic performances, however, gloss over the production’s minor technical flaws. In their directors’ notes, both Latcham and Gates point to the ‘incredible talent’ of their cast, and they are right to. From the second Harrison Newsham’s Orsino steps on stage, he makes clear that this is a production where the outstanding quality of acting will carry and enthral audiences though scenes of the highly importable. Each actor works hard to ensure that the comedy underlining the play’s Elizabethan verse its translated to its modern audience; no word is wasted, not a single joke slips by overlooked.
Furthermore, no actor attempts to steal the spotlight, but works collaboratively with the rest of the cast to strengthen the overall strength of performance. Adela Hernandez Derbyshire and George Sutton, for example, collaborate wonderfully to portray the drunken Mr Toby and Mr Andrew, delicately handling scenes of farce while refusing to detract from the play’s main action. Their skilful manoeuvring of a bamboo tree towards the end of the first half deserves special praise, inciting laughter without interrupting Malvolio’s speech.
Although the outstanding overall quality of the cast makes is difficult to draw on individual performances, Oscar Nicholson’s portrayal of the snobbish butler Malvolio cannot go unacknowledged. Even though the production chooses to focus on the overriding comedy of the play, Nicholson subtly imparts the tragedy underpinning Malvolio’s narrative and refuses to disappear as an antagonist: his final words linger over the action minutes after his final exit.
Together the cast collaborate to reinvigorate Shakespeare’s comedy, refreshing and modernising the play to accommodate its student audiences. Whether you’re completely new to Shakespeare, or an adept admirer of his works, Sixth Side’s production of Twelfth Night promises to evoke laughter through its witty, self-aware, and highly entertaining evocation of the highly improbable and dramatically ridiculous.
Image: Anna Bodrenkova