Twelfth Night, the final night of the Christmas season, was in England traditionally an “anything goes” time and there is something of this flavour in the current Power of Will production which is fresh, vigorous, inventive and determinedly different.
A mostly young cast sparkles and bubbles, and does lots of interesting and surprising things. Director Rob Pensalfini is to be commended for a pacy, energetic production. But there are times when confidence is secured at the expense of surprise, not to say wonderment. I could have wished for more times when actors were surprised at plot developments beyond their own anticipations and for more times when actors created responses to cues as if they had never heard them before.
Twelfth Night, though written long before The Tempest, should have something of the “sea change” quality about it. Viola (Nikkii Payten) and her supposedly similar twin brother Sebastian (Simon Tate) are victims of shipwreck, each unaware of the other’s survival. Their complex adventures in the romantic land of Illyria, where the Duke or Count Orsino (Matthew S. Clowes) indulges an impossible love for the grieving Countess Olivia (Suzanne Little), involve cross-dressing, disguise and confusion with both comic and near-tragic overtones.
The countess’s bizarre household includes a drunken uncle, Toby Belch (Chris Schrader), a scheming maidservant Maria (Jemma Grace), an ambitious steward Malvolio (Christopher Beckey) and a charismatic clown Feste (director Rob Pensalfini, who also takes on board the role of the servant Fabian).
The company succeeds in making the complex plot clear but sometimes the clarity rings hollow. For instance it is hard to believe that Viola (disguised as the pageboy Cesario)has begun to feel love-pangs for Orsino. Likewise, Feste’s familiarity in facially feeling his countess ringbarks her sense of authority in her house and this makes it hard for Malvolio’s subsequent outrage at the midnight revels to cut much ice.
The obvious humour is handled well but because few heart-strings are plucked, as in the pain of misunderstood or misapplied love, the possibilities for radiant relief in the last Act, where the complexities are unravelled, are not fully realised.
There is fine music from the director and his ensemble. I wished that Feste’s “Come away death” had sunk deeper into Orsino’s psyche, since he says he so much wished to hear the song again. Viola also should be much moved by the music at this point, and the music helps build the complex love between them which vibrates on the chord of her creating the lovesick “sister” who allegedly died of grief and with whom Orsino is so fascinated.
Though I missed some of the play’s mystery, there were compensations in the production’s vigour. It bounced back beautifully after the interval in a clever physicalisation of Feste’s discovery of the page “boy’s” femininity and in a desperately delicious scene between the embarrassed Viola and the deluded Olivia. Malvolio’s “yellow stockings” scene is a winner and the yellow-kilted Andrew Aguecheek’s warm-up to his duel was “Hob nob” to a tee as performed by Luke Lilly. Viola and Orsino’s relief at discovering that their relationship was workable shone through.
Converting Antonio to a sort of “pirate queen” Antonia (Lillian Darcy) is a daring cross-gender stroke that works extremely well and brings a new dimension to Sebastian’s interesting insecurity. Sebastian’s “This is the air, that is the glorious sun” speech has a wonderfully understated believability.
In the design, the hedge branches are ideal for the “garden scene” but are sufficiently unobtrusive for the set to function universally. The costumes are always in character and, without any heavy period weighting, give a nice illusion of Shakespeare’s romantic Illyria.