I went to see Twelfth Night at Stratford with great expectations. The last time I saw the play, it was years ago at High Park, and it was colourful and funny. So I bought tickets for the women in my family and we went to see a comedy.
Alas, we were disappointed. What was missing from this production was comedy. Especially in the first half.
The best word to describe the first part is bland. The set consists of two staircases on two sides of three metal trees leading to a balcony. The colour of the set is dark and the lighting subdued. Add to these monochromatic setting costumes that are mainly black, with the exception of the fool, who wears beige.
In her program notes Martha Henry, the veteran director, explains that in the first part of the play the design conceptualizes a world “initially shrouded in grief and mourning”, because Olivia, one of the heroines of the play, is in mourning. However, that explanation does not justify a full hour of visually dark and bland set and costumes in a comedy.
Reza Jacobs’ music is pleasant. A number of white bowls are placed around the stage and the balcony, which are used as instruments that Brent Carver plays to accompany his singing. He plays them by rubbing circularly around their edges with a stick, to produce interesting and mellifluous notes. However, the songs are sad throughout, the accompaniment at times eerie, and Carver’s singing, although enjoyable, lacks in volume.
The first half of the play goes on scene after scene, while the actors stand around, sit around, and sometimes yes, walk around, talking. There’s very little physical action or comedy in it. The only exceptions are the scenes with Geraint Wyn Davies, as Olivia’s drunkard uncle, Sir Toby Belch, Tom Rooney as Sir Andrew Aguecheek, Sir Toby’s infantile friend, and Lucy Peacock as Maria, Olivia’s waiting gentlewoman. They do inject some welcome energy into their scenes, but that is not enough to carry the sense of comedy and engage or entertain the audience in the first part of the play.
Mercifully the second half is better. Now that everyone is love, the lighting gets brighter and makes the metal trees look leafy and blossomed, the costumes get colourful, some action kicks in and physical comedy picks up.
Practical jokes are played on a number of people. The sour and serious Malvolio is made to paste a smile on his face and strut around in yellow garters. Sir Andrew Aguecheek and Viola disguised as Cesario are tricked into a duel against each other, played masterfully and hilariously by Afful and Rooney.
Michael Blake takes the cake in the second part, when playing Viola’s twin brother, Sebastian, he meets the beautiful and rich Olivia and she practically throws herself at him, mistaking him for Cesario. Blake’s surprised and blissful facial expression and body language in these scenes are priceless.
A lot of good acting is lost in the play. Shannon Taylor brings as much life and zest as she can to her Olivia even while she is grieving. Sarah Afful is valiant and vibrant as Viola, disguised as Cesario.
However a few good actors a comedy does not make. Neither does one funny half out of two, especially if the play starts with the non-funny part, and the audience initially feels let down.
Overall we were disappointed in the production and lost two viewers out of five in our group at the intermission, after the first half of the play came to its painful end.