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Tuesday, 30 May 2017

Taylor and Carver Shine in Stratford’s Twelfth Night

theatre review Twelfth Night Stratford Festival
Shannon Taylor (Olivia), Michael Blake (Sebastian),
Sarah Afful (Viola), E.B. Smith (Orsino)
Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann

Twelfth Night

by William Shakespeare
Directed by Martha Henry
Designed by John Pennoyer (set, costumes), Louise Guinard (lighting), Reza Jacobs (composer / sound), John Stead (fights), Valerie Moore (movement)
Featuring Sarah Afful, Rod Beattie, Brent Carver, Lucy Peacock, Tom Rooney, E.B. Smith, Shannon Taylor, Geraint Wyn Davies

The Stratford Festival opened its 65th season last night with a solid production of William Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night.

Under the direction of Martha Henry, long-time Stratford actor, director and leader of the Birmingham Conservatory, this production emphasized the text and thus focused on the actors, with few – but beautiful - scenic elements to distract.

Of the numerous fine performances of the evening, two in particular were transcendent: Brent Carver as Feste and Shannon Taylor as Olivia.  The Tony-award winning Mr. Carver returns to the Stratford stages for the first time since 2010, and presents a sweetly unassuming Feste with a voice to match. With little accompaniment, aside from some hauntingly effective glassware, it is Carver who brings a necessary sense of whimsy to the production, so appropriate for this “topsy-turvy” play.   Meanwhile it is Shannon Taylor as Olivia who gives a breakout performance.  Crystal clear in her speech, inconspicuously funny and completely convincing, Ms. Taylor is utterly delightful, and treats the audience to an unforgettable Olivia.

Not to say that the other leads are not as fine; the only thing undermining Sarah Afful’s wonderful Cesario / Viola is the decision to make E.B. Smith’s Duke Orsino a scowling, misogynistic, tyrant. Mr. Smith does this well, but it is an interesting choice, to create not a man in love with the idea of being in love but a man who is angry at being denied his prize - no wonder Olivia chooses to cloister herself against such a bully, and no wonder she falls for Ms. Afful’s kindly and jocular Cesario in contrast.  But why on earth would the clever and gentle Viola ever feel attracted to such a Duke either?  Despite this misstep in staging Ms. Afful demonstrates again an almost regal stage presence, holding her own against the like of the B Plot Rascals.
theatre review Twelfth Night Stratford Festival
Tom Rooney (Sir Andrew Aguecheek), Geraint Wyn Davies
(Sir Toby) and Lucy Peacock (Maria). Photo by
Cylla von Tiedemann
The spotlight is often stolen by this hilarious trio of Geraint Wyn Davies (Sir Toby), Lucy Peacock (Maria), and Tom Rooney (Sir Andrew Aguecheek).  I imagine Ms. Henry trying to reign them in during antic-filled rehearsals, as they were clearly having a lot of fun with their scheming scenes, so much so that sympathies are turned topsy-turvy towards Rod Beattie’s Malvolio – the poor guy was never going to stand a chance against these three scallywags, no matter how pedantic his speeches.  This triumvirate is just too larger-than-life for Malvolio, but so much fun to watch for the audience.

With strong performances from Michael Blake (Sebastian), Stephen Russell (Antonio) and Gordon S. Miller (Fabian) to round out the cast, this Twelfth Night is a textbook example of how good a creation can be when director, actors, design and text are working in complete harmony.  A fun, genuine production from a well-assembled team.  Nicely done, Stratford.

Twelfth Night continues in repertory until October 21 at the Festival Theatre.

theatre review Twelfth Night Stratford Festival
Brent Carver (Feste), Tom Rooney (Sir Andrew Aguecheek),
Geraint Wyn Davies (Sir Toby) in Stratford's Twelfth Night.
Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.

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