Where’s the Comedy?

Shannon Taylor as Olivia in Twelfth Night. Photography by Cylla von Tiedemann.

 

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.

From left: Brent Carver as Feste, Tom Rooney as Sir Andrew Aguecheek and Geraint Wyn Davies as Sir Toby Belch in Twelfth Night. Photography by Cylla von Tiedemann.

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.

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Exploring the Human Soul

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Spoiler alert!

The movie The Salesman by the Iranian director, Asghar Farhadi, is a well-directed, superbly acted, tastefully framed and shot movie. However, what touched and impressed me most, was the script. Its approach to its subject is incredible and precedent defying.

Summarizing it to the bare essentials, the movie is about rape and revenge. However, the rape is never explicitly defined as such. Raana, the victim, injured and distressed as she is, claims she doesn’t have a clear memory of the rapist, and doesn’t want the police to get involved. Emad, her husband, although mad, heart-broken for his wife and boiling with the need for revenge, gives in to his wife’s wishes not to get the authorities involved.

And so he starts detective work of his own. The first suspect he finds, looks the part. He’s young, cocky, too busy for the husband and gives him the run around. The husband is seething, but he doesn’t give in to his urge for revenge. He needs to make sure it’s the right guy he’s confronting. In pursuit of the first suspect he stumbles upon another guy, the first suspect’s father-in-law. Elderly, heavy set, with heart problems, he’s a family man and seems to be covering up for his son-in-law. Or is he?

Farhadi’s script questions everyone.

Is Raana really telling the truth? Why did she leave the door open? Why was there money left in the drawer? How is it possible she didn’t see her attacker? Why does she insist that her husband forgive her attacker although she’s severely traumatized? Is she really that traumatized or is she being an actress in her private life as well as on stage?

Is Emad the caring husband he seems to be? Why can’t he just move on and leave the matter alone? Does he really think Raana is hiding something? Why does he sometimes snap at her even during her recovery? Is his lack of action due to prudence or fear? Does he, a language teacher and an actor, really have it in him to take revenge? Does he want to take revenge because he wants to save face with his friends and neighbours, who have found out about the incident to various degrees, although Raana prefers to hush it up?

Did the rapist really not know it was Raana who was in the shower? Is he telling the truth that he had come to visit the former promiscuous tenant? After all, the door was left open and some of her belongings were still left behind in the apartment? How could he have known it was not the same woman?

What is the worst punishment for the rapist? A beating? Death? Revealing this heinous crime, as well as his previous visits to the prostitute, to his family, which will result in the family falling apart and its reputation –an extremely important thing in Iran—being tarnished?

Is the friend/fellow actor, who rented them his apartment when they were desperate for one, really the good guy he pretends to be? Should he have warned them that the previous tenant was a woman of ill-repute? Did he withhold that information because he was sleeping with her? Did he let her stay in that apartment for free in exchange for sexual favours and kicked her out at the drop of a hat, when a friend needed an apartment? Did the favour he did them end up being the biggest nightmare of their lives?

Farhadi asks all these questions and then some, but provides few easy answers. He lets his viewers consider all the possibilities and empathize with every character. There are no heroes or villains here. Nobody is absolutely blameless, but nobody is evil either. People act the way they do for their own reasons, some of which are not apparent. Everyone copes the best they can, but sometimes makes mistakes.

It is this, the absence of absolutes, that makes the script a masterpiece in exploring the human soul. Emad is a kind, caring and creative man, but he becomes obsessed with revenge. Raana is a loving, artistic family woman, but behaves suspiciously after the attack. The landlord is a good friend for Emad and Raana, but has shady dealings with his previous tenant. The rapist is a family man beloved by his wife, but he rapes an innocent woman and tries to deny and cover up his crime.

It is references, quotes and parallels between the story, Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, and Gholam Hossein Saedi’s The Cow that make this script a universal and philosophical literary piece.

And it is the lack of graphic violence that makes it so refreshingly civilized. There is violence, but it is implied. No graphic blood and guts on screen. There’s no shortage of suspense and tension, however, but it is achieved through other means like acting, music, rapid cross cuttings, cinematography, sound effects, chases in traffic, honking horns, etc. The culmination of violence actually shown on screen is a slap in the face. By comparison Beauty and the Beast has a lot more violence than The Salesman.