With identity as the theme of the Stratford Festival’s 65th season, it’s no surprise that Twelfth Night is featured in its lineup. Well-known for exploring mistaken identity, William Shakespeare used gender deception to raise the stakes, as well as the comedy in Twelfth Night.
The Festival’s website has the best summary of Twelfth Night I’ve ever read: “love throws everyone for a loop in a comic riot of misdirected desire.” The misdirected desire begins when Viola (Sarah Afful) is separated from her twin brother Sebastian (Michael Blake) and assumes the male identity of Cesario to protect herself while stranded in Illyria. She begins working for Orsino (E.B. Smith), Duke of Illyria, to help him woo Countess Olivia (Shannon Taylor). While Viola/Cesario is trying to woo Olivia, Olivia’s kinsman, Sir Toby Belch (Geraint Wyn Davies), has a plan of his own to marry Olivia to his friend Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Tom Rooney). However, Olivia only has eyes for Cesario...
Directed by Martha Henry, this production features an incredible cast with expertly timed comedy and delivery. Every time Davies’ Sir Toby and Rooney’s Sir Andrew came on stage, the entire audience burst out laughing as their ridiculous antics unfolded. Rooney never ceases to amaze me, and paired with Davies, the two brought out the best in each other to give brilliant performances of the lovable, drunken pranksters.
Lucy Peacock’s Maria fits in perfectly with these two, walking the fine line between keeping them in check and instigating their pranks on Malvolio (Rod Beattie). Beattie gave a hilariously deadpan performance of Malvolio, complete with the monotone voice and stiff disposition – that is, until he strutted his stuff in the unforgettable cross-gartered yellow stockings.
As for the true lovers of this play, Afful, Smith, Taylor and Blake shone each time they hit the stage. Afful’s Viola was funny and endearing in her attempts to ward off Taylor’s Olivia, whose transition from distant lady in mourning to sweet lady in love was artful. Blake infused his Sebastian with tender concern and a happy-go-lucky nature that cunningly contrasted with Smith’s fiery and intense Orsino.
The Festival Stage provides the perfect backdrop for the mistaken identities and deception to fall apart on. The top level of the stage allowed for Henry to perfectly block the scenes where Sir Toby, Sir Andrew and Maria watch Malvolio unravel as he desperately tries to win Olivia’s affection.
It’s noted in the program that John Pennoyer designed the production’s Illyria to be “one initially shrouded in grief and mourning, [then] later awakened to the renewal of love and passion.” This transition is expertly created with three intricate trees, crafted by Ken Dubblestyne, that cover the posts supporting the top level of the stage. The gorgeous trees feature twisted metallic branches that showcase golden leaves for the first half of the play and are spun around to reveal golden flowers for the second half of the play.
With a beautiful set, highly talented cast and never-ending laughs, Twelfth Night is sure to become a favourite in this year’s Stratford Festival season.
Twelfth Night plays at the Festival Theatre until Oct. 21. For more information, visit www.stratfordfestival.ca.