To lift off the 2017 Stratford Festival, Shakespeare’s beloved tale of mistaken, mis-gendered identity was given its 12th production since it first played here in 1957.
With Martha Henry in the director’s chair and a stellar cast—notably Sarah Afful as the gender-fluid Viola, E.B. Smith as unlucky-in-love (or there’s no plot) Orsino, Brent Carver as the ever-foolish (but wise beneath the surface) Feste, Sir Toby Belch done up to a drunken T by Geraint Wyn Davies, his sidekick, Sir Andrew Aguecheek, being brought to outrageous life thanks to Tom Rooney, love of everyone’s life (it seems) Olivia given a fine turn by Shannon Taylor and Lucy Peacock at her conniving best playing Maria—this production should have been a grand comedic slam from the git-go.
Alas, somewhat alack, perhaps due to a recent overdose of comedy defeating tragedy at the Shaw Festival mere days ago (The Madness of George III—cross-reference below), I found myself grimacing more than guffawing as the brilliantly written humour madly embraced bald farce rather than taking a cooler approach and letting the contrast between wry wit and love—lost and found—take its natural course.
Look no further than Malvolio’s (Rod Beattie gamely doing all that was asked of him) inflating the yellow stockings/crossed garters gag to tawdry, burlesque proportions. Sir Andrew’s fight/fright scene began well, but both positioning a “cover” to protect his privileged jewels and fondling his gleaming rapier became too much of a good, er, thing.
No worries: most of the opening night crowd savoured every bit of the thrust-stage hilarity (John Pennoyer’s sparse set was a marvel of form, function and leafy subtlety).
However, by journey’s end—when the deceptions were laid bare and happy-ever-after couplings revealed—there was a curious feeling for some as to “So what?”, while, perhaps, many more were waiting for the next big yuk rather than a well-sung minstrel’s ditty to bring down the proverbial curtain.
P.S. The singing bowls were a most welcome addition to the soundscape: here’s to more of that sort of musical inventiveness in the week to come. JWR