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TWELFTH NIGHT: What country, friends, is this?

by | Jun 22, 2024 | Review | 2 comments

A couple of hours before the lights went up on this Bard on the Beach production of Twelfth Night, Kate Besworth got the call that she’d be going on as Viola: Camille Legg, who is cast in the role, has been laid low by a nasty bug. Besworth is the understudy for Viola, so she’d had some rehearsal, but the cast had never done an understudies run-through. Going on in a situation like this is daunting — potentially terrifying. But I saw the show in its second night and Besworth nailed it. By the time she got to the iconic speech, “I’d build me a willow cabin at your gate”, she was fully in her groove — openhearted and clearly having a great time. This is what professionalism looks like. This moment should be — and deserves to be — very good for Besworth’s career.

And I look forward to seeing Legg’s Viola the minute they recover. Legg is an excellent young actor.

The overview of director Diana Donnelly’s production is more complicated. Donnelly has set this melancholy comedy in a carnival/circus. Although several actors deliver strong performances within this conceit, the convention itself almost never makes sense. When Viola washes up, shipwrecked, in Illyria, where the play is set, her first words are, “What country, friends, is this?” But this production never successfully answers her question: I could not figure out where the hell we were supposed to be or what the rules of this reality were.

Some story for context. Believing that her twin brother Sebastian has drowned, Viola sets herself up as a page in the court of Illyria’s Count Orsino, disguised as a youth named Cesario. Orsino is smitten with the Countess Olivia, but she is in mourning for her brother and refuses to entertain Orsino’s entreaties, so Orsino sends Cesario to woo Olivia for him. Olivia falls in love with the beautiful, soulful youth, but Viola/Cesario is already smitten with Orsino.

In the subplot, Olivia’s drunkard kinsman Sir Toby Belch is partying with his gormless friend Sir Andrew Aguecheek and Olivia’s servant Maria. Disgusted by their carrying on, Olivia’s puritanical steward Malvolio threatens to shut their party down by kicking Sir Toby and Sir Andrew out of Olivia’s court. (Sir Toby is a noble, but he is dependent on Olivia’s largesse.) In revenge, the three partiers trick Malvolio into thinking that Olivia is in love with him and that, to show his love, he should present himself to her wearing yellow, cross-gartered stockings, and grinning non-stop.

In the final complication, three months after Viola has washed ashore in Illyria, Sebastian shows up alive and well, accompanied by Antonio, the pirate who saved him from drowning. The twins are repeatedly mistaken for one another.

Okay, I’m going to get into the many things in director Donnelly’s interpretation that don’t work for me. This will take a while. But then I’ll get into the many things that do work. Hang in with me!

Because it’s so underdeveloped that it feels arbitrary, Donnelly’s carnival/circus approach mostly shoots blanks.

What’s the reality of this circus? Olivia and her clown Feste do a bit that’s staged as stand-up comedy. Stand-up isn’t exactly standard circus fare, but this chunk kind of works as a performance within a performance. It’s the only thing that does.

Olivia is, supposedly, a circus star, but what is her act, exactly? What do any of the characters really do in the circus? And, as per Viola’s question, where precisely are we?

Like Donnelly’s conception, Pam Johnson’s set lacks specificity. It looks like a circus ring, but it features carnivalesque elements such as a swan boat that seems to have escaped from a Tunnel of Love. Within this vague space, Donnelly moves her actors arbitrarily; for no apparent reason, they keep jumping onto a little podium that looks like it was designed for elephants.

To be clear, I’m all for abstraction, but the world of Donnelly’s Twelfth Night feels messy to me, a half-realized idea that’s neither fully abstract nor recognizably realistic.

This muddiness, which leaves the characters looking stranded in a kind of nowhere land, also undermines some of the play’s most important drivers, including its class dynamics. In the script, Olivia is in control of her court, Malvolio is her manager, and the two of them lord it over Sir Toby, Sir Andrew, and Maria. When those three are cruel to Malvolio, resentment about status is their motivation. But, in the vaguely democratic space of this Twelfth Night, the world of Olivia’s court has lost all its shape, so the class tension that goes with it mostly goes up in smoke.

Donnelly also undercuts the stakes in other ways.

She turns the pirate Antonio into the female Antonia, so the moving — and risky —homoerotic dynamic of the male pirate’s devotion to the beautiful youth is lost. Further, in Shakespeare’s original text, Antonio and Orsino share a violent history: in a sea battle, Antonio damaged Orsino’s ships. So, when Antonio follows Sebastian into Orsino’s court, he is risking his life. In Donnelly’s version, this dynamic is painfully reduced: Antonia is at risk in Orsino’s court only because she once did better card tricks than he did, upstaging him.

A duel that Sir Toby and Maria trick Sir Andrew and Cesario into is always played for laughs, but the reality of duels usually adds danger to it. In this production, instead of brandishing swords, Sir Andrew and Cesario smack one another with foam toys. Who cares?

In the most fundamental error of this type, the director’s framing of Malvolio fizzles. Donnelly has cast a woman, Dawn Petten in the role, and turned the character into Malvolia. This is a potentially rich choice, but Donnelly fails to capitalize on it. Malvolia is puritanical, quite possibly a Puritan, which raises questions about her sense of vulnerability in relation to Sir Toby’s sensual excesses — especially with the complication, in this revised version, of Malvolia being lesbian. But none of this goes anywhere. In fact, the cruelty of Malvolia’s mistreatment — the comic trio imprisons and psychologically tortures her — is almost criminally underplayed. Malvolia’s parting shot, “I’ll be revenged on the whole pack of you”, can be devastating, but it has virtually no sting here, both because it hasn’t been set up properly and because it quickly gets lost in an inappropriately chipper closing song.

But I did say there are successes. Let’s get to them.

Olivia Hutt’s work as the Countess Olivia is extraordinary throughout. She brings much-needed groundedness to Olivia’s grief and to her transformation into infatuation. Hutt’s speaking voice is a richly resonant instrument and she also puts that voice to good use here in some of the original songs that Veda Hille has written for this production.

You couldn’t ask for a better Andrew Aguecheek than the one Nathan Kay delivers. Kay finds all sorts of surprising — often surprisingly contemporary — takes and rhythms in this drippy fop’s speech.

Looking a lot like the eccentric, late 70s/early 80s pop singer Klaus Nomi, Anton Lipovetsky is excellent as Olivia’s clown Feste. So many musical gifts, such welcome thoughtfulness.

Playing guitar and sometimes drums, Charlie Gallant does a great job of supporting Lipovetsky musically, and his characterization of Sebastian is winningly vulnerable.

Other performances are less successful. Marcus Youssef is too laidback to make much of an impression as the usually extravagantly debauched Sir Toby, and Evelyn Chew’s portrait of Maria is only serviceable, which means that a lot of the comic subplot doesn’t work as well as it should.

Although Dawn Petten is one of the best actors in town, she gets lost in the overall misconception of Malvolia. And Aiden Correia fails to find the romanticism that might raise Orsino above his more obvious creepy narcissism.

The extraordinary richness of Mara Gottler’s costumes is always a surprise. When Olivia appears for the first time once she has left her mourning, her multi-coloured, multi-patterned, multi-frilled dress is a stunner.

In general, I’m a huge fan of Veda Hille’s music, but, for me, it only works about half the time in this production. That’s mostly during moments of heightened emotion — when Viola and Sebastian finally meet and realize they’re both alive, for instance. I often longed for more spoken text and less singing, though, and both the opening and closing numbers are badly misconceived in my view. The raucous opening number washed over me without leaving a trace of meaning or valuable information. Why not just launch straight into the action like the play does? The closing song exists in the original script, and it’s clearly meant to be haunting. Following close on the heels of the wounded Malvolio’s curse, it repeats the lines, “With hey, ho, the wind and the rain … For the rain it raineth every day”, and it’s meant to be sung by Feste, alone on the stage. Here it’s sung by almost everybody in the cast as a rousing chorus; you’d think it was the closing number of Oklahoma!

This illustrates my basic beef with this show and with a lot of Bard on the Beach productions: they reduce complex scripts to broad entertainments, as if Bard audiences aren’t capable of appreciating anything more nuanced.

If you’ve seen and enjoyed this production of Twelfth Night or, if you’re going to see it and find that you enjoy it, good on ya. There’s a lot to enjoy. But, in my opinion and my experience, there could be a lot more.

TWELFTH NIGHT by William Shakespeare. Directed Diana Donnelly. On Thursday, June 20. A Bard on the Beach production running in rep on the BMO Mainstage Tent until September 21. Tickets and information

PHOTO CREDIT: Nathan Kay rocks out as Sir Andrew Aguecheek. (Costume by Mara Gottler, photo by Tim Matheson)


  1. Timothy Yuro

    The last production if Twelfth Night I saw in the Summer of 2022 was so stunning that I have held back from picking up tickets to this. Sounds I like a saved some money. That was the free production put on by the Classic Theatre of Harlem starring the incomparable Kara Young, who just won the Tony for her performance in Purlie Victorious. If you can get to Harlem this year, they’re doing Midsummer Night’s Dream – for free – starring Russel Peters. Vancouver is such a shit hole.

    • Colin Thomas

      I don’t experience Vancouver as a shithole, but I do envy your seeing Kara Young in Twelfth Night!


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