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COPPING FLACK: BELVOIR’S TWELFTH NIGHT, OR WHAT YOU WILL

July 29, 2016

Shakespeare’s festive comedies – A Midsummer Night’s Dream, As You Like It, and Twelfth Night – are bound within a series of strict societal rules, rules which govern behaviours, moods, actions and reactions, as well as language and plot. They also perform a very specific function, namely allowing the society’s capacity for anarchy or misrule to find a full expression in an environment where mischief-making can be corrected, apologised for, and in some cases, released. Punning on the notion of ‘will’ – the idea of desire and love (and/or lust), as much as autonomy, as well as being a euphemism for penis – Shakespeare somehow manages to create a play which, like Rosalind at the end of As You Like It, asks us to cherish what pleases us and forgive the rest.

Eamon Flack’s As You Like It, seen at Belvoir in 2011, took Shakespeare’s play and infused it with a wit, warmth, and fullness of life and expression that barely seemed to be contained within the two walls of the Belvoir stage, and later spilled over into the street outside. In creating that production, Flack and his collaborators “gave [themselves] the same task Shakespeare gave himself and his company” – that is, to (re)create the kind of experience that Shakespeare might have written to be performed on Shrove Tuesday at Richmond Palace in 1599, in the presence of Queen Elizabeth I. In that instance, As You Like It became “a show about a bunch of city people visiting a pastoral realm of bucolic contemplation, performed for a bunch of city people visiting a pastoral realm of bucolic contemplation,” that is to say the theatre. I mention all this in prologue to ground Flack’s latest production of Shakespeare’s last great festive comedy – Twelfth Night, or What you will, to use the play’s full title – also perhaps Shakespeare’s darkest, within a kind of self-critical feedback mirror.

In his director’s notes for Twelfth Night, Flack writes about the holy days and feast days when controlled anarchy (such as pageants and rough-theatre) was permitted. He also says that for Twelfth Night, he and his collaborators set themselves the task of “performing the play almost entirely as written[,] partly as a boast and partly as a warning, because some of the play is now archaic nonsense… [We] have taken the play on its own terms and plunged headlong into its strange poetry because the archaic oddity of the play is what makes it glorious.” Except that it’s not. Not really. Not much at all.

Set vaguely within a “Renaissance of our own making,” Flack’s production is bound by a gold wall, a deep azure wall, and partitioned by a six-foot tall orange wall, all shades you would find in countless Renaissance paintings. Michael Hankin’s set plays with this idea of the Renaissance, but nowhere near enough, or to the degree you might expect from Flack’s previous work or considering the fact that inspiration was taken from the work of Bosch, Giotto, and Botticelli. Stephen Curtis’ costumes – a veritable cornucopia of Renaissance and early-modern-period styles (keyword being ‘period’) – are a riot of colours and character types, but never seem to feel an intrinsic part of the world of the play. They feel like they are stuck in a kind of purgatory which, considering Shakespeare’s plot and the ideas within the play itself, seems vaguely apt, but this is never built upon nor made clear in any way, and there is precious little to look at besides bodies in plush velvet and bright motley (and enough lean and slipper’d pantaloons to last seven times seven ages). Nick Schlieper’s lighting brings a Renaissance quality to Flack’s stage pictures, but the production never really shines nor radiates any holy chaotic light of its own to match or enhance this. Alan John’s music, alongside Cailtin Porter’s sound design, brings the on-stage musician trick so memorably deployed in The Diary of a Madman, and combines it with snatches of Gershwin and a catalogue of Renaissance-sounding whims and confections, and it is quite delicious, if a trifle incongruous with the lack of life elsewhere on stage.

Part of the problem with this Twelfth Night is its textual fidelity as much as its staging. Setting yourself the task of “performing the play almost entirely as written” can work, but only so long as you find ways to make it work. When tackling Shakespeare or any one of the other Renaissance/Early-Modern writers like Marlowe, Webster, or Jonson, part of any contemporary production’s job is to find within the standard text one of your own; if it means cutting everything except the plot and dramatic beats, fine; if it means trimming the text to a more manageable length to highlight an issue, that’s fine too. But staging the complete text ‘because we could’ is dangerous, and Flack’s production is hoisted by its own petard – it falls victim to its own warning, and serves to show that there is a reason the complete text is very rarely performed. Yes, some of the play is archaic nonsense, but we have seen instances in the last five or six years where Shakespeare’s jokes have been made hilarious by a talented cast and/or clever substituting of modern idioms for those that have fallen out of currency. In fact, it is exactly what Flack did in his production of As You Like It in 2011 on the same stage, by giving Charlie Garber’s Touchstone Fool the licence to remove the bits of comic business that didn’t work in a contemporary context and replace them with his own. In that instance, every addition or subtraction to the text was made with a very particular and firm intention and structure, and was not a decision made lightly, no matter how spontaneous, free, or anarchic it looked in performance.

Here though, the lack of rigour and grounding looks indulgent, and the production suffers as a result of a languorous pacing and many pockets of dead-wood in which large swathes of text pass almost unintelligibly. In many cases, this is not the fault of the actors, many of whom are skilled and more-than-capable performers of Shakespearean text, but rather the dramaturgical grit, reason, and motive behind each line and exchange. Flack’s staging is also curious, as it was in parts of Angels in America, in that a lot of the action – and many crucial moments and lines – are played deep in the corner of the space, or are lost by not facing out towards the auditorium. In some cases this works, but at other times it looks like poor direction, something that could have been rectified without too much reworking of entrances, exits, exchanges, and with almost no meaning lost but rather meaning and potency gained. There are rare moments – the opening moment with the white-face-and-clothed chorus echoing Orsino’s movements, the shipwreck scene which is filled with a joyous abandon which masks yet amplifies the reality of the moment, the wheelchair cavalcade, and the overhearing of Malvolio scenes – which all hum and buzz with a wit and effervescence which disappears all-too-quickly. These moments, all featuring the ensemble, are rare flashes of Flack’s theatrical wit and ingenuity which I used to admire, but here they seem buried or lost among the “archaic oddity” of the play and its “strange poetry.” 

Flack’s Illyria is peopled with a motley crew of ratbags, puritans, lovers, and knavish rogues that only Shakespeare could write, and his cast do their best to grapple with the language as best they can, with varying degrees of success. Nikki Shiels’ Viola is at first a full-blooded young woman distraught by the disappearance of her twin brother, while her alter-ego Cesario is boyish yet strangely emotionally distant. Damien Ryan’s Orsino, resplendent in maroon velvet doublet and pantaloons and boots, is a lovesick count who seems to see through Cesario’s disguise from the beginning. While Orsino’s passion seems muted, Ryan’s passion and dexterity with the language does not, and it is a joy (as it always is) to watch and hear the words drip from his tongue with clarity, honesty, and full-coloured life that you are never in any doubt as to their meaning. Anita Hegh’s Olivia is relatively straight-laced in her dark bottle-green gown and veil, but there is a passion underneath her skin which rarely gets the chance to burst forth. Lucia Mastrantone’s Maria, Olivia’s maid, in a similarly coloured dress, bursts forth with wit and clamour, not afraid to twist words and scenarios around her finger, nor is she scared to dispense revenge with a cruel streak; the gulling of Malvolio, at her insistence, is both uproarious and vicious, yet we never lose sight of the human cost of the actions. Peter Carroll’s Malvolio, the po-faced Puritan, is a menacing ascetic figure who stalks the stage like a shadow, disproving of indulgence in all its forms; his reaction to the contents of Maria’s letter is a burst of technicolor as if from a shattered stained-glass window, and his smile will make you shudder; like Ryan, Carroll’s dexterity with the language is clear, and his performance (and dance) is something to behold. Keith Robinson’s Feste is a cantankerous old Fool who, even though he is wheelchair-bound, seems more full of life than some of the other characters. Robinson’s face is expressive not just with words, but with (sometimes malicious) intent, cunning, and good-humour, and his deconstruction of a number of lines and songs is particularly clever (even if it is lifted straight from The Popular Mechanicals which Robinson devised with Tony Taylor and William Shakespeare, and premiered at Company B Belvoir in 1987). Amber McMahon’s Sebastian is an effective mirror to Shiels’ Viola though suffers from a lack of stage-time, but her Fabian is particularly memorable in her (in)ability to climb the wall and baiting of Malvolio, and she proves (yet again) that she is as skilled at comic roles as she is at straighter roles. John Howard and Anthony Phelan as the pair of larger than life scoundrels Sir Toby Belch and Sir Andrew Aguecheek respectively, are marvellously full of bluster, swagger, and seem the very essence of their commedia del’arte counterparts; Howard delivers his lines at times towards the floor which makes some moments undecipherable, while Phelan loses some of his through their rapidity, but their eccentricity and colourfulness compensate. Emily Uguvale’s Antonio suffers from a lack of stage-time and a particularly flat character whose only purpose seems to be to assist Sebastian find lodgings before being arrested by the Illyrian militia; her songs however are magical, and her voice fills the theatre with a sweetness otherwise largely missing from the production.

Flack’s first season as artistic director of Belvoir seems to be nostalgia-tripping the light not-so-fantastic; of the six productions Upstairs so far, only one (The Events) has truly compelled, even if one beat within it clanged with dramaturgical insensitivity. Part of the problem with this Twelfth Night is the lack of rigour in which it sits – from its concept to its direction and execution. Part of the problem lies in its in insistence on textual fidelity – in performing the text whole, I am unsure of what the story Flack is trying to tell in this production; why has this play been done now, what does it say about us now, why should we care about it now? Where other productions have highlighted the sorrow and darkness or the cast-adrift-ness and selflessness in the play, Flack’s production highlights the… His director’s notes propose the play is about love and grief, and how “they’re two sides of the same coin, inevitably [leading] to each other.” But all I feel a couple of days later is a hollowness and emptiness which is only exacerbated by the luscious colours and emptiness of Hankin’s set. Also a grief – that this particular bunch of actors have been given seemingly little (and simultaneously too much) to play with so have created a kind of perfectly adequate production you might perhaps see at a university or drama school but nothing truly stand-out that we have come to expect from Belvoir and Flack.

The ending of Flack’s production is rather anticlimactic. While downplaying the wonder-upon-wonder tendency of the text (whereby Cesario is revealed to be Viola; Sebastian and Viola are reunited; Olivia ‘gets’ Sebastian, and Orsino ‘gets’ Viola because they ‘knew’ all along, no matter how weird the truth of that actually is), Flack has denied us of the final release from the darkness of Shakespeare’s play; we are still trapped within the Malvolio-like bitterness that mars the apparent-arcadia of Illyria. Is the production a fantasy enacted by mad people as suggested by the cast’s on-stage appearance at the start of the show in white faces and clothes, suggested by the frequent describing of people as ‘mad’ or ‘madmen’? Is it a Renaissance tableau come to life, in all its chaotic Boschian glory – but if so, where is the true chaos and madness, the nightmarish visions, the hellfire and damnation? Or is it, taking a leaf from Shakespeare’s setting for Coriolanus, “a place calling itself the Renaissance,”  whereby it is “a time of overthrow, when shitty, vain, splendid humanity [replaces] the saints and angels as the glory of creation. No more halos, just hangovers.” If so, where is the grit, where is the justification, where is the exploration of this idea, the nuance of it, the light and shade, the colour and gradation; the sense of death and rebirth, the renewal and the cessation; the chiaroscuro, the tempera; the plastered and the cracked, the angels and demons; the heavenward aspirations and the earthbound fall of realisation – where are they in Flack’s Renaissance-inspired conception of Illyria? Where is the rigour?

Even though this is the sixth or seventh Twelfth Night I’ve seen in as many years, I still maintain that Lee Lewis’ production for Bell Shakespeare remains the high-bar that any future production needs to clear. Not only was it theatrically playful and embracing of the capacity for imagination to complete the rest of the illusion, but it was grounded in a tangible and very real sense of loss and grief (the aftermath of the 2010 Victorian bushfires); the joy and aliveness were never far away from the sorrow and heartbreak at the core of all Shakespearean tragedy. For all Flack’s gimmicks and indulgences, his Twelfth Night was more what he will than what you will.