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Twelfth Night or What You Will


The Stage Club


Matthew Lyon






Jubilee Hall, Raffles Hotel



12 x 2 = 24th Night?

It's the second time around for this production (you can check out Deanne's review of the first run here), so I'll keep the plot summary brief. Noblewoman Viola is shipwrecked and washes up in the kingdom of Illyria minus her twin brother Sebastian, who she assumes has drowned. In order to make a living, she dresses up in men's clothes, calls herself Cesario and goes to work for the local duke, Orsino. She quickly falls in love with Orsino but - alas! - he doesn't love her because he is pining for his neighbour, Countess Olivia, who - alas! - doesn't love him because she has taken a fancy to Viola/Cesario. Alas. Before this triangle gets ironed out, a prissy servant called Malvolio gets chained up and tortured by a drunkard, a fop, a wench and a fool... but in the end Sebastian turns up and it all ends happily with three gender-appropriate marriages.

Twelfth Night is a lengthy ensemble play with a lot of large roles, so I hope you'll excuse me while I cover them at length...

Inkpot's own Musa Fazal, playing Duke Orsino was very good and very bad, sometimes simultaneously. At his best, he reminded me of Toby Stephens, whom I saw playing Hamlet in London last year: a huge, plummy voice with presence to match, a sense of command and a certain attractive capriciousness. At his worst, he reminded me of the cartoon caricature of William Shatner that occasionally cropped up on the animated comedy series Family Guy. The cartoon Shatner was a creature of weird vocal contortions and erratic movements, as if his performance had been spliced together from multiple, wildly different takes. And there were other times when I felt that the two extremes of his performance did not exclude each other, and they fused into something that felt like an old silent movie but with words - like that scene in Singin' in the Rain after motion pictures first get sound and Gene Kelly flounces up to the lovely Jean Hagen, zealously proclaiming his love. At such times it was difficult to decide whether to take Musa's Orsino seriously or not. In some ways the performance was hammy and seemingly oblivious and in others it was skilled and self-aware. This ambivalence worked wonderfully at moments which called for hyperbole or camp, such as the play's swoonsome opening line, "If music be the food of love..."; but it was silly to the point of being uncomfortable whenever Orsino was supposed to get genuinely agitated, even though Musa toned down his excesses at such times.

Elena Scherer, playing Viola, complicated matters by refusing to be in the same play as Musa. While his performance was exaggerated, hers was understated, as though she were playing to TV cameras rather than an auditorium. The result was that whenever the pair was onstage together, they seemed to be battling each other for control of the aesthetics of the play. As it happens, Musa won because he had more allies: most of the cast played their parts pretty big, leaving Scherer on her own with the naturalistic approach. On her own terms, though, she was good, being clear, motivated and, importantly, gender-neutral.

Completing the love triangle, Kim Maxwell as Olivia was poised, ardent and even occasionally radiant, but only in soliloquy. Whenever she was in conversation with other characters - and especially when they got close to her - she shut down somewhat and seemed to be waiting for her cue. As a result, she had no chemistry with anyone - even Paul Hannon's Feste, who was practically a walking pheromone factory.

Barry Woolhead, playing Olivia's uncle, the irascible piss artist Sir Toby Belch, had so perfectly captured the blaring, bumbling swagger of upper-class British debauchery that he must have been born with a silver shot glass in his mouth. The problem was that the shot glass still seemed to be in his mouth - he was slurring his words so much that it was sometimes hard to catch them, even for me, an angmoh familiar with the to-the-manor-born, to-the-brewery-married accent he had assumed. My Singaporean companion admitted that she couldn't work out half of what he was saying.

I have often been less than kind to The Stage Club when they have used British regional accents in the past, but here I think they made the right choice. Woolhead's performance reminded me of a character called the Honourable Rowley Birkin, QC, from The Fast Show, a BBC sketch comedy. Rowley was a red-nosed, tweedy retired barrister so sodden with drink that his fireside anecdotes were completely unintelligible until he ended them with the catchphrase "Of course, I was terribly, terribly drunk at the time." But even though you couldn't understand a word of Rowley's anecdotes, they were often side-splittingly funny because of the twinkle in his eye, because of the fun he was having, and because the actor inhabiting him was transmitting the character so engagingly. Similarly, Woolhead's performance fitted the character, the setting and the requirements of the play so exactly that a few lost words here and there were inconsequential (and anyway, you could get a lot of what Woolhead was saying from his excellent physical acting).

Sir Toby Belch is only one half of a double-act that supplies much of the comedy for Twelfth Night, the other half being ineffectual fop Sir Andrew Aguecheek, played here by Angela Barolsky. Barolsky did a creditable job with Sir Andrew: she had great timing, her best moments were belly-laugh funny, she was believably dumber than lint, and she was so wet she practically dripped. But she never quite overcame the fact that she was miscast. Twelfth Night's central conceit relies on the dramatic irony of its audience's knowing that the main character is a woman dressed up as a man. This makes it a bad idea to add in another woman dressed as a man - the audience can't accept the gender bending and move on, as they might in other plays, because they are reminded that cross-dressing is important every time Viola/Cesario appears. It didn't help that Barolsky, with her high, thin voice and feminine movements, was never credibly male.

Maureen McConnell was pert, infectious and irrepressible as Maria, the serving maid who co-opts Toby and Andrew into making her boss Malvolio's life miserable - and she managed all this without being at all showy. She drove her scenes forward, adding flavour to lines that are mostly just exposition, and she shared excellent chemistry with her co-stars, Woolhead particularly.

Phil McConnell was a very interesting Malvolio. Whenever I have seen Twelfth Night before, Malvolio has been portrayed from the outset as a prissy jobsworth - you immediately note his self-important bossiness and you want to see him taken down a peg. McConnell, however, played Malvolio with much less conceitedness and merely a hint of puritanism. This meant that instead of being a stuffed shirt made out of wet blankets, McConnell's Malvolio came across as a more or less reasonable guy: for example, when he berated Maria, Toby et al. for being too rowdy, his voice was not disrespectful and you could see he had a point. Granted, after Maria tricks him into thinking Viola is in love with him, we see his pomposity and pettiness come through (which McConnell enacts with glee), but by then, we've already made up our minds that he's basically a decent bloke. This means that when the other characters tie him up and dump him in a dungeon, he retains a lot of audience sympathy.

He gets even more sympathy because Paul Hannon, playing Feste, the clown, is the one tormenting him in the dungeon. Hannon played Feste like he was a cat in a kingdom ruled by mice - he knows he is quicker, smarter and deadlier than any of them, but the mice remain in charge and there is nothing he can do about it. He does, however, get to play with them from time to time (he gets to bully Viola and Olivia as well as Malvolio), and whenever he did you could sense the menace: claws unsheathed and sheathed again, a purr turning into a growl, eyes sparking and tail twitching as he stalked his prey. At other times you saw the subtlest flicker of defeat in his eyes, the consciousness that he would always be less than his inferiors, and you pitied him more than his prey. Hannon's was a magnetic, involved performance, and it was the best of a very good bunch.

But back to Malvolio: McConnell played his release from the dungeon and his subsequent realisation that he had been gulled with such genuine wounded pride that - far from thinking him a blustering windbag as I usually do - I felt really sorry for him and wanted to punish those responsible for his humiliation. But whom should I punish? Maria is probably the best candidate, but she is so vivacious and fun that I hadn't the heart. After that it would be Sir Toby, but he is such an exuberant buffoon that it would be like kicking a naughty puppy. So thanks to McConnell and director Daniel Toyne's interpretation of Malvolio, the play ended on an unresolved note, almost as if we should tune into Thirteenth Night next week to see what happens. This was an interesting choice well-handled, and it paid off nicely.

Toyne had made many such intelligent directorial choices. Indeed, he had left nothing to chance. Every single line in the play had clearly been subject to his interpretation, meaning that no words were ever spoken simply because they appeared in the text; all were spoken because the characters had reasons for saying them. Even the weaker actors (of whom there were pleasingly few) sounded like they knew what they were doing even if they did not quite understand how to do it, and the better actors took Toyne's meanings and flew with them, imbuing them with fluidity and life. Nor was Toyne's direction entirely vocal - he often added gestures or little bits of business that helped the audience see what they needed to see, yet he never veered towards the base pantomime that often plagues productions of Shakespeare.

Well, I say never but that's not quite true. There were a few moments in acts three and four when Toyne's judgement let him down. The worst came when Sebastian's rescuer Antonio (Bruno Goh Luse) gets arrested and expects Viola, whom he mistakes for Sebastian, to help him pay his way out of jail. Viola has no idea who he is and refuses to admit that she is indebted to him. This makes Antonio very angry, and he expresses his anger in a substantial monologue. Throughout this monologue, Toyne decided to have the arresting officers constantly pushing at Antonio, who ignored them or brushed them off like flies. But that didn't deter them - they just kept pushing, with a vague air of constipation, only to finally succeed the moment Antonio ran out of lines. Considering the intelligence that had gone into the vast majority of the play, it was hard to see how moments like this could exist at all.

My only other issue with Toyne's direction is that he often unnecessarily cluttered his set with extras. Maxwell, particularly, was an extra-magnet, always attended by two twittering ladies-in-waiting. I never like this because it distracts and dilutes focus and I can't see the point of it anyway. The problem could have been ameliorated if Allan Davidson's lighting had been better able to pick out the important areas of the stage, but it was largely just a wash.

And what is washed over was an ugly set - a set which never quite seemed like it was indoors and never quite seemed like it was outdoors either. Nor did it suggest a conservatory or a patio or any other in-between space. It just seemed like they had taken some stuff from the garden and some stuff from the living room and arranged it on stage so the actors would have enough places to go. And it certainly didn't seem to belong to the 1940s English cricket club milieu that the costumes and many of the performances were aiming for.

But at least the set was functional and the actors were comfortable on it - comfortable enough to produce some wonderful performances grounded in a rich interpretation of the text and secured through what must have been a lot of hard work in rehearsal. It is very difficult to do Twelfth Night well, and - minor flaws aside - well is how The Stage Club has done it.

"Toyne made many intelligent directorial choices. Every single line in the play had clearly been subject to his interpretation, meaning that no words were ever spoken simply because they appeared in the text; all were spoken because the characters had reasons for saying them"

Second Opinion
You're the One That I Want by Deanne Tan

Director: Daniel Toyne

Musical Director: Peter Stead

Asst. Director: Phil McConnell

Stage Manager: Kathy Hall

Lighting Design: Allan Davidson

Lighting Op.: Daniel Gosling

Costumes: Hilary Richardson

Sound: Vivienne Wong

Props: Jodi Jonis and Kathy Hall

Cast: Musa Fazal, Patrick McConnell, Bruno Goh Luse, Steve Armstrong, Lily McConnell, Lee Siew Cheng, Barry Woolhead, Angela Barolsky, Phil McConnell, Paul Hannon, Peter Lugg, Emanuelle LeBris, Kim Maxwell, Elena Scherer, Maureen McConnell, Jodi Jonis and Kathy Hall

Score: Lesley Foster

Musical Arrangement: Peter Stead

Music Coordinator: Marv Hixson

Musicians: Marv Hixson, Winston Goh, Pisit Pirigaporn, Keith Callinan, Richard Khan and Peter Stead

More Reviews of Productions by The Stage Club

More Reviews by Matthew Lyon

Ratings out of 5, based on Practitioner's Vision / Reviewer's Response: ***** = Transcendent / Rapturous;
**** = Crystal / Appreciative; *** = Transmitted / Thoughtful; ** = Vague / Unsatisfied; * = Uncommunicated / Mystified.