“Nothing that is so is so,” says Feste the fool, the only character in Twelfth Night who has a firm grip on his own heart, mind and identity. The rest are pretenders, double-dealers, liars, spongers, narcissists, sycophants, self-deceivers, maniacs, or all of the above. And what fun William Shakespeare had herding them about his funniest play, which he laced with song and dashes of transcendental verse.
It’s routine with Shakespeare’s comedies for visual gags to offer lame compensation for the fact the wit has been lost between page and stage. Not with Christopher Stollery’s Sport for Jove Twelfth Night. So much is more than right, beginning with the pacing, which is akin to the Marx Brothers at their best. If the downside is that some dainty glories of the verse are lost, the overwhelming upside is that the manic levity thrives as if in a hothouse.
Perhaps Stollery’s greatest triumph lay in his casting of Viola and Sebastian, the shipwrecked identical twins, who, unbeknown to each, both survive, washed up on the shores of Illyria, a place not too distant from the destination reached via psychedelic drugs.
By casting a woman, Felicity McKay, as Sebastian, and Rebecca Montalti as (a feistier than usual) Viola, and with help from Fiona Victoria Hopkins’ costumes, the twins look startlingly alike. So rather than the audience accepting the pair’s being identical with a nudge and wink, the cause of the other characters’ confusion is made plain. This zany improbability makes all else that happens in Illyria less far-fetched, and somehow sharpens the comedy.
Stollery’s other piece of gender-bending is for Malvolio to become Malvolia, with Lexi Sekuless in the role. At first, this seemed to miss the target, but then the outrageousness of Sekuless’s brand of upward-inflecting, self-obsessed officiousness began to resemble – just enough – certain lamentable creatures from federal politics.
In the famed scene in which Malvolia tries to woo the self-indulgent Olivia, played with chic elegance by Adele Querol (wearing stunning gowns by Hopkins), the notorious yellow stockings and cross gartering became yellow fishnets and items of lingerie.
The laughs kept coming. The trio of Sir Toby Belch, Sir Andrew Aguecheek and Fabian often seem little more than cast-offs from Falstaff’s roistering world, yet here Septimus Caton, James Haxby and David Soncin suddenly made them seem as funny as any of Shakespeare’s creations, with Sir Toby now a vinyl-trousered, washed-up rock star. Christopher Stalley was a fey and youthful Orsino, who, if he failed to maximise the “If beauty be the food of love…” speech at the play’s hectic pace, certainly amplified all the absurdity of this man who loves to love, and himself most of all.
Jay James-Moody, so brilliant as Peter in Sport for Jove’s concurrent production of Romeo and Juliet, made for an entertaining enough Feste, but perhaps without quite conveying the sense that the fool’s intellect dwarfs that of any other character in Illyria, and Wendy Strehlow, Mandela Mathia and Damien Ryan completed the cast.
After being rained out in Leura Everglades last weekend, the production finally opened at the Summer Season’s indoor venue. Although much of the blocking would have had to change radically, the cast swam through any choppy waters with a sense of bonhomie that ensured Stollery’s production was not just hilarious, it radiated an ensemble warmth that many companies would swap their names to replicate.
Twelfth Night is at Leura Everglades until January 26; and Old Government House, Parramatta, from February 2 to March 1.
John Shand has written about music and theatre since 1981 in more than 30 publications, including for Fairfax Media since 1993. He is also a playwright, author, poet, librettist, drummer and winner of the 2017 Walkley Arts Journalism Award