Characters in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night or What You Will are drunk with infatuation. They chase after that sweet sensation of being overcome by the notion of love, obsessed with finding reciprocation from the object of their desire. It is an escape from the harsher realities of life, this frivolous respite. Taking us away from stories of war, of incarcerated children, or of religious schism. Countering the dark with light, we can go to the theatre for mirth, seeking refuge in its momentary illusions so that our souls can rest and be comforted, like a baby, safe in her mother’s womb.
The production understands the joy it has to deliver, in order that it may bear any meaning at all. Director Eamon Flack’s approach takes things back to basics (with the help from set designer Michael Hankin and costume deigner Stephen Curtis), creating a show that looks and feels as if presented by a troupe of Elizabethan travelling players, who have little more than their bodies and voices to tell the story with. Flack’s experimentation with working from a script that is virtually unedited, means that we rely on the actors to make every line of dialogue count, including the many instances of “archaic nonsense” (Flack’s words) that only the scholarly would appreciate. It is a tall order, and the results are predictably mixed. The very accomplished and esteemed cast delivers three hours of wonder, amusement and laughter, along with interludes of bewilderment and boredom.
Anthony Phelan’s camp humour is outrageous, completely gleeful in its tenacious need to tickle our funny bone. Keith Robinson is charming as Feste, breaking through the fourth wall for a firm connection with his audience, daring to improvise beyond Shakespeare’s words. Peter Carroll and Lucia Mastrantone impress with their energy and precision, both inventive in their surprising artistic choices.
The world can spin too fast, too manic for mere humans to cope. Retreating into the classics can help us regain composure, and with the old-fashioned Twelfth Night, we can hope to find our feet again, in everything that is placid and familiar. Tradition is valuable in the way it reminds us of what is good and time-honoured, giving us an understanding of humanity’s nature, helping us define our place in the world. It is also the basis on which we decide what needs to change, and how we can progress and become better. Shakespeare is a past that continues to haunt us, but we can make of him what we will.