"If this were played upon a stage now, I could condemn it as an improbable fiction." When Feste speaks this line midway through a play that involves identical twins, cross-dressing, mistaken identities and yellow cross-garters, audiences chuckle knowingly. Sure, the plot’s improbable; but who cares when it’s this fun?
This adaptation of Twelfth Night by Faction Theatre is lightheartedly ludicrous, and its strengths lie in the excellent characterisation. Sir Andrew (Jonny McPherson) is endearingly bumbling throughout, almost as if he’d wandered into the drama by mistake on his way to the Upper Class Twit of the Year contest. With the charm and timing of Oliver Chris, his moustachioed bungling of the simplest of tasks frequently has the audience erupting into laughter.
Maria (Leonie Hill) is an excellent foil to Sir Andrew and Sir Toby (Richard Delaney), her cockney mischievousness and streetwise intelligence contrasting well with the ineptitude of the knights. But it is Gareth Fordred’s performance as Malvolio that lifts the production from mere farce to something more. In particular, the scene where he discovers the letter supposedly from his mistress gives a poignant twist to the comedy. It's easy to simply play Malvolio as a dour, puritanical jobsworth, but Fordred’s portrayal manages to tread the fine line between tenderness and desperation.
Mark Leipacher's production is innovative, although this is not always a good thing. For instance, the elements of physical theatre (such as the play’s opening storm) do not complement the generally jocular tone of the piece. While the decision to stage the play in a black box with no scenery necessarily puts the onus on movement to convey a sense of place, there is an air of unnatural contrivance. Shakespeare wouldn’t have had scenery either, which is why he relied upon his scripts to paint the environment; the ensemble were very good speakers of the verse, and this would have been enough to suffice.
However some of the more modern touches are lovely, and are fully in-keeping with the play’s overall cheerfulness. Having the priest indicate the timepiece on his wrist during the line "Since then, my watch hath told me…" is a cheeky emendation that had the audience in fits; and Viola’s embarrassment at being confronted by a handsome Duke dressed in little but a towel is a sassy and sexy addition.
Given the plot, the play’s love stories are understandably unbelievable, but then Faction are aware of this. After the betrothals of the final scene, Feste (Lachlan McCall) concludes the performance with his banjo. "The rain it raineth every day" was originally played and sung by Robert Armin, a member of Shakespeare’s company who took over from Will Kempe as chief Fool, and who understood the subtleties of the absurd. McCall’s folksy rendition of this closing song serves as a bittersweet reminder that there have been casualties on the way to the play’s happy ending, and that the marriages are no indicator of future happiness. But this mildly melancholic conclusion does not detract from the evening’s entertainment; if anything, it heightens the play’s impact by putting things in perspective.