THEATRE: Twelfth Night.

Si­mon Phillips’ MTC pro­duc­tion of Shake­speare’s Twelfth Night may lack a lit­tle of the com­edy’s melan­choly, writes Peter Craven, but in Tam­sin Car­roll and Richard Piper it has per­for­mances as good as seen any­where.

The Saturday Paper - - Contents - Peter Craven

Twelfth Night is ar­guably the great­est of Shake­speare’s so-called happy come­dies. It is cer­tainly the least typ­i­cal be­cause it is so shrouded in sad­ness and then turns some­thing like the ex­trap­o­la­tion of melan­choly into mad­ness of the most far­ci­cal kind, in­flicted on a char­ac­ter who is dead sane, apart from that fact that he has no sense of hu­mour. The other thing about Twelfth Night is that it’s a bit like Verdi’s Il trova­tore in one soli­tary re­spect – all it re­quires is the four best per­form­ers in the world.

Geoffrey Rush was orig­i­nally set to play Malvo­lio for the Melbourne Theatre Com­pany, the role of the pompous stew­ard who is hurled into a state of in­fat­u­a­tion by false pre­tences. In this pro­duc­tion, Rus­sell Dyk­stra is, alas, noth­ing like a sat­is­fac­tory sub­sti­tute. Else­where, Si­mon Phillips’ pro­duc­tion is mixed – it’s vis­ually rich to the point of gaudi­ness, and Christie Whe­lan Browne is a daz­zling Olivia in ditzy­blonde mode, but Es­ther Han­naford is an un­cer­tain flat-voiced Vi­ola and Lach­lan Woods is a man­nered, stiff­ish Orsino. On the other hand, the cakes and ale crew are rather grand, with Frank Wood­ley sub­lime in his clown­ing as Sir An­drew and Tam­sin Car­roll as a sturdy ut­terly sure­footed Maria. Richard Piper plays Sir Toby as if to the manor – or at least the ale­house – born, with great style and pre­ci­sion. And Colin Hay, from Men at Work, al­most steals the show as Feste, the jest­ing song­ster, in a per­for­mance of un­tram­melled star­ri­ness.

But Twelfth Night is im­pos­si­ble. I heard Ian McKellen say once that he thought it should only be per­formed by archangels – his ver­sion of the trova­tore yard­stick.

It be­longs so much to that bit­ter­sweet as­pect of Shake­speare that is­sues into a son­net cou­plet such as, “Thus have I had thee, as a dream doth flat­ter/In sleep a king, but wak­ing no such mat­ter”. And, yes, Orsino right at the end echoes that most sex­u­ally am­bigu­ous of Shake­speare’s son­nets, “A woman’s face with na­ture’s own hand painted/hast thou, the mas­ter-mis­tress of my pas­sion”. Vi­ola, ship­wrecked and dis­guised as a man, falls in love with Orsino, her lord, who sends her to woo Olivia, the lady in mourn­ing, in his stead. Of course, Olivia falls in love with Vi­ola, who she knows only as “Ce­sario”, think­ing she is in­deed a man.

This is a play ship­wrecked on the rocks of erotic fu­til­ity and it has a swoon­ing, aching tone of lovelorn el­egy. It rep­re­sents Shake­speare at his most trist­ful, even though there is a coun­ter­bal­ance to all of this, which whis­pers grace­fully that love is tol­er­a­ble, how­ever sad, life goes on and you get by.

Com­pared with the tragedies, the play is in a mi­nor key, yet it has a mu­si­cal­ity and depth of de­sign that haunts the mind. At her first ap­pear­ance Vi­ola says, “What should I do in Il­lyria? My brother, he is in Ely­sium.” A scene or two later Olivia, who gives her heart to Ce­sario, de­clares that she knows her dead brother is in heaven af­ter Feste, the Fool, tells her that her mourn­ing could only be jus­ti­fied by the be­lief that her brother was in hell.

The show may hon­our the twelfth night of Christ­mas but its bell tolls the end of that fes­tiv­ity. The logic is the logic of the late north­ern au­tumn, for the rain it raineth ev­ery day.

It’s not hard to imag­ine that the man who had done happy com­edy with such pas­toral sparkle in As You Like It, with such more than Sha­vian wit and zest in Much Ado, was head­ing for the in­erad­i­ca­ble sor­rows of his tragic pe­riod when he wrote Twelfth Night – that and the in­scrutabil­i­ties of those enig­mas of the mean­ing-of-life plays, the so-called prob­lem plays of which Mea­sure for Mea­sure is per­haps the great­est.

Olivia’s black for mourn­ing, Malvo­lio’s black for pu­ri­tanism, are not the courtly hec­tic black of Ham­let with its cas­cad­ing wit and cor­us­cat­ing sad­ness but they are grave enough. Yet the funny thing is that with Malvo­lio it’s his grav­ity, his proto-tragic dif­fi­culty in ever raising a smile – which comes thun­der­ing down in that fi­nal stran­gled cry of “I’ll be re­venged on the whole pack of you” – that cat­a­pults the play into may­hem and comic de­li­cious­ness.

Twelfth Night is a pseudo-farce piv­oted on the premise that there isn’t much about the world that’s funny, and it works like a dream, not least when Malvo­lio is pre­sented as a mad­man. It plainly be­longs to the pe­riod when Shake­speare was writ­ing for the man who must have been the sub­tlest and bit­ter­est of his fools, Robert Ar­min, who cre­ated the role of the Fool in King Lear.

Si­mon Phillips’ rich, os­ten­ta­tious, con­sis­tently di­vert­ing pro­duc­tion of Twelfth Night be­gins in swirling mist-laden blue greys as Feste sings an en­thralling dirge­like “Fear no more the heat o’ the sun” (from Cym­be­line). It milks the note of griev­ing with a histri­onic grandeur you can hardly ob­ject to, and Colin Hay is mag­netis­ing through­out the evening with his Scot­tish burr and his rock­star dif­fer­ence. He gives a pow­er­ful in­sin­u­a­tion of the wit that un­der­lies the sor­rows of the earth and puts them through their paces. It’s not quite an ele­giac or a softly cyn­i­cal Feste but in its way it’s ir­re­sistible. And so too is Christie Whe­lan Browne, who is a top­pling com­i­cal Olivia of cap­siz­ing crazy-cat daz­zle with Mag­gie Smith-like tim­ing of great sly­ness and style and purring wide-eyed dimwit­ted­ness. She com­mands the stage more than any of the other leads. Es­ther Han­naford’s Vi­ola is not false but she doesn’t muster the tech­nique to go deep and so tends to look be­wil­dered rather than for­lorn. In de­signer Gabriela Tylesova’s over-the-top Ja­cobean baroque gold bro­cade, Lach­lan Woods as Orsino is merely fop­pish and you’re en­cour­aged – in an old-fash­ioned and un­help­ful way – to think he would much rather Vi­ola stayed as a boy. Ce­sario and his courtiers camp around Orsino like a kind of swarm­ing bee club. Pleas­ant enough to be­hold, if you like that kind of thing.

And Rus­sell Dyk­stra – the man who is su­perbly, painfully real in Richard Roxburgh’s film of Ro­mu­lus, My Fa­ther – is quite lim­it­ingly camp as Malvo­lio so that he can­not, as Malvo­lio should, re­lease the dor­mant

melan­choly of the play into a dy­namised cha­rade of mad­ness. He just sim­pers and frets at the edges of an ac­tion that eludes him at ev­ery point.

En­ter the rois­ter­ers, who are a de­light. Frank Wood­ley is ut­terly de­crepit as Sir An­drew but with enough sad­ness un­der the car­toon to catch at the heart, and the phys­i­cal buf­foon­ery with swords, with door­ways, is done with a grandeur of in­ep­ti­tude that en­chants the mind. It’s a su­perb ven­ture into clas­si­cal theatre and shows how amenable it is to the in­su­per­a­ble majesty of the clown.

As Maria, Olivia’s ser­vant, Tam­sin Car­roll is ev­ery­thing she should be – tough, easy­go­ing and hell­mak­ing. She could com­mand any stage in the world in this role and that’s not some­thing that could be said of many of her fel­lows.

It could be said of Richard Piper as Sir Toby, how­ever. He’s a tough, sea­soned aris­to­cratic fun­ster ab­so­lutely se­cure and on the note when he stares down Malvo­lio. “Art any more than a stew­ard? Dost think be­cause thou art vir­tu­ous there shall be no more cakes and ale? ... A stoop of wine, Maria.” We hear the im­memo­rial au­thor­ity, as crisp and pre­cise and pulled back as a cavalry charge, of the nat­u­ral born clas­si­cal ac­tor in comic mode. Piper is as good a Toby Belch as you could hope to see.

Phillips’ pro­duc­tion is an an­i­mated, over­dressed whirligig that will be­guile the senses and – let’s face it – dumb­found any in­tel­li­gence that tries to strug­gle against it. It’s a raz­za­matazz Bar­num-and-Bai­ley Broad­way

TWELFTH NIGHT IS IM­POS­SI­BLE. I HEARD IAN MCKELLEN SAY ONCE THAT HE THOUGHT IT SHOULD ONLY BE PER­FORMED BY ARCHANGELS.

mu­si­cal of a Twelfth Night. How­ever, ev­ery­thing Tylesova does to sub­stan­ti­ate Phillips’ vul­gar and ex­trav­a­gant dreams of Il­lyria works in the di­rec­tion of sump­tu­ous­ness – so much gold, so much ooh-ah gasp­ing and eye-grab­bing gooi­ness. You can’t com­plain. The gap with Malvo­lio might have been filled in all sorts of ways. If I’d had the world to choose from, Ralph Fi­ennes, such a daz­zling comic ac­tor when he sends up his ca­pac­ity for fix­ity of pur­pose, would have been my pick.

But, hey, it’s never easy when you lose a lead, and Christie, Frank Wood­ley, Richard Piper and Colin Hay will keep you car­olling through the night.

My hunch is that Shake­speare might have pre­ferred to bring down the cur­tain with Hay on a more som­bre note – as if all this were a pream­ble to the cry of “Who’s there?” at the start of the play about the prince and the ghost. This is still a Twelfth Night you’ll want to see, though, and when you do you’re likely to find it hard

• to mur­mur against.

Rus­sell Dyk­stra, Tam­sin Car­roll and Richard Piper (above, from left) and Colin Hay (fac­ing page), in MTC’s Twelfth Night.

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