Twelfth Night or What you will – Belvoir St Theatre

Belvoir’s Twelfth Night or What you will is a joyous production that mourns unrequited love and celebrates the revelry and ridiculousness of Shakespeare’s play.

The actors’ ensemble, dancing and frolicking together, greet the audience as they enter the theatre. They are set against a bare but colourful backdrop (Michael Hankin) with vibrant lighting (Nick Schlieper). The entertaining and haphazard opening effectively establishes the light and jovial tone of the rest of the play.

Image: Brett Boardman.
The cast of Twelfth Night. Image: Brett Boardman.

Twelfth Night revolves around the concept that ‘nothing that is so is so’. Twins Viola (Nikki Shiels) and Sebastian (Amber McMahon) wash up ashore a foreign land after a shipwreck; they are separated and believe the other to have died. Viola disguises herself as man to be the servant of Duke Orsino (Damien Ryan), who she quickly falls in love with. Viola pursues Orsino’s love-interest on his behalf, but to Viola’s dismay she attracts the mournful Olivia’s (Anita Hegh) affections instead.

The convoluted love triangle is foregrounded amidst a number of other humorous subplots, including: a blossoming romance between Olivia’s gentlewoman Maria (Lucia Mastrantone) and drunkard cousin Sir Toby (John Howard); a woeful fool (Keith Robinson) and his wisdom; and a scheme to embarrass and seek revenge against the brooding Malvolio (Peter Carroll).

John Howard and Anthony Phelan. Image: Brett Boardman.
John Howard and Anthony Phelan. Image: Brett Boardman.

Director Eamon Flack hones in on the play’s festive spirit and celebrates the revelry at its heart through many mischievous scenes and enthusiastic dancing, as well as slapstick and simplistic humour. He highlights the woes and delights of love; the audience mourns the unrequited love with those who are rejected and celebrates when the lovers embrace.

Flack’s light-hearted direction and the cast’s gift for comedy makes the humour in this show a winner, but the grief in the story is not as successful. The pangs of Viola, Orsino, and Malvolio’s unrequited loves are strongly felt, but the sorrow of loss is never quite as present, even though many scenes cry out for it (particularly those that demonstrate Viola and Sebastian’s grief at the assumed loss of a sibling). The final scene doesn’t quite emanate the gravitas that it could; the comic staging of it prompts laughter but detracts from the meaningful reunion between two twins who thought they had lost each other – a moment that should be huge but feels brushed over.

Image: Brett Boardman.
Emele Ugavule. Image: Brett Boardman.

The cast does an excellent job of encapsulating the joyful and cheeky spirit of the piece. Shiels is affecting in her yearning love, Damien Ryan is compelling as a love-torn Orsino, and Anita Hegh masters the comedy in her severe yet pining portrayal of Olivia. Amber McMahon successfully balances her dual roles, a gleeful Fabian and a sincere Sebastian. Peter Carroll’s Malvolio is a standout; he is stern and reproachful, which provides for a very amusing transition to his more light-hearted and desperate self when he believes Olivia to return his affections.

Belvoir’s Twelfth Night might provoke consideration of what is true and what can be known, or it might just resonate with anyone who’s ever been in love with someone who doesn’t return their affections, but either way, despite its underwhelming moments and preference to stay on the lighter side of the story, it is an enjoyable and entertaining piece that successfully captures the joy and absurdity of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night.

Bec Caton

Bec has a diploma in musical theatre and is currently completing a Bachelor of Arts majoring in English. She is a freelance theatre writer in Sydney.

Bec Caton

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