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Review: Stratford Festival kicks off with dreary take on Twelfth Night

From left: Shannon Taylor as Olivia, Michael Blake as Sebastian, Sarah Afful as Viola and E.B. Smith as Orsino in Twelfth Night.

Cylla von Tiedemann

2 out of 4 stars

Twelfth Night
Written by
William Shakespeare
Directed by
Martha Henry
Sarah Afful, Shannon Taylor
Stratford Festival
Festival Theatre
Stratford, Ont
Runs Until
Saturday, October 21, 2017

The Stratford Festival has opened its 65th season with a comedy I would previously have called surefire: Twelfth Night.

I've seen it performed in a variety of styles, with an all-male cast in Elizabethan costumes, with puppets, with a mid-show delivery of pizza to the audience – and every time I've exited feeling that it's the most reliably funny of Shakespeare's plays.

Well, there's always something new to see in the Bard. On the Festival Theatre stage, director Martha Henry has put together the most downbeat production of Twelfth Night I have ever seen – full of rage and disconnectedness, and long stretches without a laugh. She almost, but doesn't quite, make the case that this is the actual play Shakespeare wrote.

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The main plot of Twelfth Night has generally been taken as a recipe for the ridiculous. Viola (Sarah Afful) gets shipwrecked with her twin, Sebastian (Michael Blake), and washes up alone on the coast of Illyria. For some reason, she disguises herself as a boy named Cesario to serve the local Duke Orsino (E.B. Smith) – who dispatches her to woo the mourning Countess Olivia (Shannon Taylor) on his behalf.

Naturally, Olivia falls for servant instead of master – and Viola, in disguise, pines for Orsino.

Henry has the actors treat all this with the utmost seriousness. Duke Orsino enters, more in anger than in love – in Smith's performance, a short-tempered stalker disgruntled that the object of his affection won't respond to his messages of love. As for Taylor's Olivia, she seems genuinely in the depths of despair when she first appears.

In most productions, Orsino's yearning and Olivia's mourning tend to be depicted as comically ostentatious or over the top. But why should they necessarily? Olivia's lost her father and brother within the past 12 months, while Orsino repeatedly gives us the opportunity to see him as genuinely frightening in his obsessiveness – heck, he's still threatening to kill everyone he supposedly loves in the final scene.

Brent Carver, playing the freelance fool Feste, sets an off-putting tone for the production, opening with a song that usually comes later: "What is love? Tis not hereafter; present mirth hath present laughter."

Composer Reza Jacobs has composed melancholy settings to this and other songs well suited to Carver's wide-eyed, almost traumatized delivery of them; he accompanies himself on Tibetan singing bowls that emit eerie otherworldly sounds when rubbed.

Okay, we get it: "Youth's a stuff that won't endure," a.k.a. we're all going to die. But what of that present mirth and present laughter? It mostly comes here from Tom Rooney as Andrew Aguecheek, whom he portrays as a real dimwit in a long blond wig. Rooney's comedic sensibilities are contemporary – and, if he occasionally relies on shtick here, that he connects with the audience's funny bone is clear in the roars that greet almost everything he does.

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Sir Toby Belch (Geraint Wyn Davies) has convinced Aguecheek that he stands a chance with his cousin, Olivia – but he's really just trying to get as much money out of his drinking buddy as possible. With the help of Maria (Lucy Peacock), the men plot against Olivia's puritanical steward Malvolio (Rod Beattie, almost as sonorous as those singing bowls).

An enjoyable trio between Belch, Aguecheek and Feste aside, this part of the plot still feels unusually subdued. John Pennoyer's austere set – a trio of metallic trees that sprout in front of the balcony on the thrust stage – continually oppresses the mood. The designer's ye-olde-Shakespeare costuming, likewise, is drearily autumnal in colour and almost willfully bland. Maria and Belch (in hideously overdone red "alcoholic" makeup) seem to have wandered out of a history play – and while Olivia's dresses are pretty in a conventional way, they give little opportunity for Taylor to express herself (or be funny) through physical comedy.

What ultimately seems irredeemably missing in Henry's production is romance – any sense of real chemistry between Orsino and Cesario, or Olivia and the same. I'm not sure if it's an intended absence: When Blake, who's emerged as one of Stratford's most reliable talents, reappears in the plot as Sebastian near the end of the play, we suddenly feel a bit of lust of youth that Feste sings about at the start – and the atmosphere lightens considerably.

Perhaps Twelfth Night really is a play about a man who won't take no for an answer stalking a grieving woman and the torture of a steward by a bunch of drunks. Or perhaps this production is just directed and starring artists better suited toward heavier works.

Twelfth Night ( continues to Oct. 21

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