Twelfth Night at the Abbey Theatre

May 9, 2014


Wayne Jordan’s Twelfth Night, running at the Abbey until the end of the month, is pure sugar-rush theatre. Brightly coloured with manic energy, the youthful exuberance of the cast manifests itself in big characters and a bitter-sweet ending, with an aesthetic that covers its want of feeling with deliberate bombast.

Emma Fraser’s hipster chic costumes- skinny jeans, jeggings, hoodies and lots of gold-lamé, turns the Kingdom of Illyria into a 5am come-down in Williamsburg, where a cape covered Orsino(Barry John O’Connor) skags to Air’s Sexy Boy as he mopes over his unrequited ‘love’, Olivia(Natalie Radmall-Quirke).

Her Uncle, Toby Belch (Nick Dunning), is long past the point of just saying no, pimping his mourning niece out as a prospective partner to the gullible Andrew Aguecheek (Mark Lambert), so he will continue bankrolling his good times. His foul temper and constantly sarky demeanor suggests that whatever drugs he’s on are no longer having the desired effect. Rather than facing up to the fact he’s literally pissed his life away, he decides to take the puritan Malvolio (Mark O Halloran) down a peg or two. (Who is this dry shite standing between him and a late night mosh out to Rage Against the Machine, anyway?).

Into this den of inequity stumbles the shipwrecked Viola (Sophie Robinson). In an attempt to memorialise her believed-to-be dead brother Sebastian, she’s dressed in drag and calling herself Cesario, wining favor with a deranged Orsino who has her woo Olivia on his behalf.

Despite vowing to keep her legs shut for a respectful seven years in honor of her dead brethren, something about this fey boy child pops Olivia’s cork -twice over, when she mistakes her, in fact not dead, twin Sebastian (Gavin Fullam) for Cesario and sleeps with him.

Sebastian’s been shacking up with Antonio (Coner Madden), whose missing eye blinds him to the fact that Sebastian would shag anything that helps his self-interest, setting in motion the spine of a production that twists mistaken identities and purees sexuality, using high camp to highlight the bitter aftertaste of self-deception.

Jordan’s biggest mistake is not trimming the play to facilitate his high-octane approach. The meaning behind the words are less important than the manner in which they are delivered here, although some of the nods to modernity also miss the mark. A barbershop style sing along to the Prodigy’s Firestarter, a painful knicker clad finale, and the modern music adapted into the show feels incredibly dated and at odds with the sceenster setting.

When Ger Kelly sings (and it must be said STUNNINGLY) as Feste the Fool, it resonates loudly with the deep hurt felt by all the characters, projecting it out onto us the audience, something that is missing elsewhere in this buzzing production.

That sense of longing. Of deep, loaded breaths impressing on the thinnest of sexual boundaries. A feeling that the characters are going to snap and cross a line that can still get you killed if you misjudge the signals today.

Robinson’s reading of Viola is much to blame. Firstly, for a production where appearances are close to godliness, her transformation from girl to guy is painfully pallid. She throws on a t-shirt, some jeans and ties her hair back, holding herself in a manner that suggests- but never convinces us of, boyishness. She carries this through in her meek, doubting dealings with Olivia. It’s inconceivable that the later would have any interest in such a timid creature and it also strikes a blow to the loaded scenes she shares with Orsino, who she is supposed to be in love with.

When Orsino asks Cesario to once more woo Olivia, it’s a scene that should throb with indecision. An erstwhile heterosexual is trying to deny his growing feelings for what he thinks is a younger man by focusing on a woman. But the productions failure to embrace a more masculine track for Viola as Cesario- and I believe it to be Jordan’s failing, not Robinsons, means a chance to explore the fluidity of sexuality, the undeniable pull of desire, is lost. And with it goes the productions frisson.

There are excellent performances. Nathalie Radmall-Quirke is a stately, yet genuine presence on the stage. Great actors show you the soul of their characters with their eyes. Hers retain the desperation, great grief and true decency that make Jordan’s no longer such a ‘happy ending’ work. Now wed to one who looks like her true love, but does not possess her soul, Olivia looks like she is awaiting the floods, bound for life to a self- centered cad, much like her uncle and, in this production, Orsino.

O Halloran piles on the pathos as Malvolio, making you feel for this vulnerable but seething creature who has come asunder for the pleasure of aimless heathens who take their own dissatisfaction at life out on him.

Cruelty for the sake of a good time is something that should be uncomfortably familiar for those of us who, in the words of Enda Kenny, “have all partied”. Nick Dunning may lean too heavily into the caddish side of Sir Toby’s nature at the expense of his charm, but he commits to his decision, making his treatment of Malvolio hard to watch while Mark Lambert, Elaine Fox and Lloyd Cooney – all impressive, further strengthen the sense of dissatisfaction, of chasing illusions rather than facing reality.

This is a flawed but vigorous production. It tests boundaries rather than defiling them but the irreverence hints at what could be achieved if only they thought less about pleasing audiences and accepted the task of challenging them.

* Me and Rosie take differing opinions on the production on the current edition of State of the Art
http://www.radiomade.ie/podcasts/164

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