The many unnecessary and irrelevant productions of William Shakespeare’s texts have caused me to grow a little jaded. Too often I’m left after two-plus hours unsatisfied and thinking, “yeah, okay, but why now?” Take, for instance, National Theatre London’s most recent production of Hamlet starring Hollywood heavyweight Bennedict Cumberbatch. Try as they might, and despite many well-intentioned but uninformed costume choices (one of which had Cumberbatch rocking a graphic t-shirt with the late and great David Bowie on it and some red Converse Chuck Taylors), the stale production failed to add anything new or exciting to one of Shakespeare’s most popular texts.
Admittedly this was my attitude walking into the main theatre space at the National Arts Centre, not really knowing what to expect from Twelfth Night under the direction of Artistic Director Jillian Keiley. Suffice to say, this production is truly impressive with its high calibre of design and the Keiley’s ability to restate the play’s relevance in 2016 Canada. I highly recommend seeing this show before it takes its final bow on Saturday February 6th.
The general plot of Twelfth Night is relatively well-known and its comedic essence rests on the literary trope of mistaken identities. Viola, after becoming separated from her brother Sebastian in a shipwreck, takes on the disguise of a young boy (or, rather, a eunuch) and enters into the service of the Duke Orsino, who believes himself to be madly in love with the Countess Olivia. In spite of the short time spent together, Viola soon becomes enamoured of her liege.
In becoming the Duke’s envoy, we are invited into the Countess’ household and are witness to the various shenanigans that take place, most notably the prank pulled on Olivia’s stern steward, Malvolio. Olivia, however, is not impressed with the Duke’s eloquent love letters and instead turns her gaze to his messenger, a concealed Viola styled as Caesario. Numerous love triangles start to emerge as Viola becomes further entangled in her illusion and it only gets more convoluted when her brother Sebastian ultimately shows up. All this being said, if you’ve ever seen the film She’s the Man (or are at least somewhat aware of comedic tradition), then you’ll know everything works itself out in the end the four young lovers, who have now paired off, all live happily ever after.
The aesthetic of the NAC’s newest production is easily its strongest asset. Despite not “typically design[ing] shows with actual living actors in them”(Prélude Winter 2016), the Old Trout Puppet Workshop gives us a rich and elaborate stage and costume design that creates a colourful universe for the performers to play in. As others have mentioned before me, the parallels between Monty Python’s illustrator Terry Gilliam and the Old Trout’s conceptualization of Shakespeare’s Illyria (and its inhabitants) are both uncanny and exceptionally executed. From its moving pictures, to the faces in the stone, and with the fly away set pieces, designers Pityu Kenderes and Judd Palmer treat the audience to a visual buffet no doubt intended to keep spectators enticed during this two-hour-no-intermission adventure.
Through the clever incorporation of puppetry (thanks in part to Workshop Puppet Consultant Peter Balkwill), a great deal of humour is added to the piece. The physical form of the actors is broken up on a few occasions to be paired with other inanimate body parts which create an absurd and ridiculous image to the viewer’s eye. We laugh at the contrast between the tiny puppet body and the actor’s very real head because of the exaggerated human form it inspires.
One moment which stands out in particular is a scene where the performers (minus characters Sebastian and Antonio, I believe) embody different Illyrian townspeople by carrying large caricatures across the stage and stylizing their respective gaits. The audience, now, has to split their gaze between actor and puppet and where the humour lies, again, is in this mash-up of the two images simultaneously.
The costume design (again by Kenderes and Palmer) takes this idea even further as exemplified most obviously by Olivia’s guardsmen, the figure of the priest, and Feste himself. Drawing no doubt from commedia dell’arte traditions, these characters act on stereotypes and provide even more comic relief. The use of mask and exaggerated body parts and features (such as Feste’s cod-piece or the priest’s long eyebrow hair) trigger different reactions within the audience, allowing them to assume certain qualities about that character. Oh, and let’s not forget that fantastic nude suit that had such a grand reveal my sides nearly split.
Unfortunately a lot of the individual performances of the Shakespearean text itself do not live up to the grandeur and depth of the world in which it takes place. A lot of the script is delivered without any clear emotion, making it sound a tad over-rehearsed and stiff. The energy on stage is mostly driven by Kayvon Kelly, as Feste, though there is really nice chemistry and tension between Janelle Cooper, as Viola, and Amanda LeBlanc as the Countess.
Fight Director John Koensgen, who filled in for Bruce Dow the night of this particular performance, executes his roles as the Sea Captain and Malvolio dutifully. One doesn’t simply “drop in” to Shakespeare, so Koensgen’s past knowledge of this play is both evident and undoubtedly useful in this case. Though not always the stand-out on stage, he does deliver some laugh-out-loud moments when needed to act the deadpan against Kelly’s ludicrous Feste.
That being said, overall, I think this is one of Keiley’s strongest productions to date. Showcasing the imaginative and creative aesthetics of one of Canada’s most prestigious puppet theatre companies, her mise-en-scene truly emerges during the hilariously choreographed scene changes and John Gzowski’s sound design. The stylized versions of the 80s-90s pop-love songs are an excellent touch.
More importantly, she finds a way to breathe a contemporary spirit into this classic text through her interpretation of characters like Olivia and Feste. The lovesick, yet grieving, Countess is the young millennial Western girl personified. She fits in perfectly with the selfie-taking, fan-girling culture so prominent in 2016 North America. Feste, who makes numerous small but significant references to current pop culture (i.e. “Byyyyeeee”), is another character that the modern day audience will certainly feel an affinity for. Finally, the finale of the show where the stage gets completely stripped and the actors end the show with some choral singing is a lovely way to bring the audience back to reality, to the here and now, after such a visually stimulating experience.
While the conversation surrounding diversity on Canada’s stages intensifies, Keiley blasts through with a multi-faceted and multi-cultural ensemble, determined to share stories that represent theatre, humanity, and Canada (Jillian Keiley nac-cna.ca). With tensions rising over the racial inequalities inherent in our current society, and #OscarSoWhite trending globally, it would be remiss not to acknowledge the importance of casting people of colour in prominent roles on stage particularly when it comes to re-imagining a text often considered part of the Western (see: white) male-dominated theatrical canon. In this sense then, the National Arts Centre is continually pushing to fulfill its mandate by adding other cultural voices to the national artistic conversation. Keiley’s choices as current Artistic Director of English Theatre Programming are obviously not solely motivated by a need for social justice, as we can see through the partnership with The Old Trout Puppet Workshop they are also based in artistic merit.
Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare
Directed by Jillian Keiley
As imagined by The Old Trout Puppet Workshop
Quincy Armorer as Orsino
Janelle Cooper as Viola
Lucinda Davis as Antonio
Bruce Dow/ John Koensgen as Malvolio, Sea Captain
Kayvon Kelly as Feste
Tristan D. Lalla as Sebastian, Valentine
Amanda LeBlanc as Olivia
Alex McCooeye as Andrew Aguecheek
Paula-Jean Prudat as Fabienne
Paul Rainville as Toby Belch
Alison Woolridge as Maria, Priest
The Ensemble as Various Puppet Characters