Twelfth Night by Company B, Belvoir and Piya Behrupiya by The Company Theatre, Mumbai
No matter how many times Twelfth Night is staged, each production bursts out of the seams of the text in new ways. There is just so much stuff in this play that as long as the performers are encouraged to be adventurous with what they find, every version will feel fresh.
So it is that two productions of the same play on in September in Sydney can share a story and very little else, and still be alike in their vivacity, though widely varying in their execution.
The version at Belvoir St Theatre provides the example of what a reliance on the guidance of the text produces. There was barely any cutting, even of archaic jokes, and just a touch of ad-libbing to frame that. The choice of actors, heavily weighted towards older, highly experienced stage performers, set up the piece to emphasise thoughtfulness and polish in the delivery. Actors who know both their verse speaking and their slapstick as the finely honed tools of their profession bring joy to a production in partnership with their skill. In artists like Damien Ryan as Orsino and Lucia Mastrantone as Maria we saw how much the communication of both meaning and personality comes from understanding the language and offering it up with love. Peter Carroll was a phenomenon, giving everything to his performance. Malvolio’s dance of glee and hopefulness after receiving the letter was giddying to watch.
This play involves an unusually high number of clown figures: Feste, Malvolio, Sir Toby and Sir Andrew, even if you don’t count Maria and Fabian. In this confidently exuberant crowd (even with an unusually sober Feste), Nikki Shiels was a charming enough Viola, but looked as if she was working very hard to be funny. This by contrast with Amber McMahon who infused the usually ‘straighter’ role of her twin Sebastian with a wildly effortless comic physicality.
After a lengthy fashion on Sydney’s main stages for rehearsal-room casuals and an inexcusable preponderance of track suit pants, I am so grateful to be getting costumes again. Appearing first all in Marat/Sade cream-coloured smocks, as each actor became a character they acquired an exquisitely constructed heavy velvet costume in a block colour. Set off by walls designed to look like lacquer or the gilt backing medieval religious paintings, these minimally adorned yet rich costumes allowed for beautiful stage pictures to be created.
This production allowed the play to be funny and moving as a piece of fanciful storytelling, without insisting that it must remind us of our own world in order for us to care about it.
Piya Behrupiya is a version of Twelfth Night adapted into a variety of Indian languages, through the financial support of Shakespeare’s Globe in London, as part of their ongoing project to see Shakespeare translated into all possible languages. This was far from a straightforward translation, however. As the English surtitles attested, the play had been translated into rhymed verse, which was then translated back into English in rhyme. A kind and educated audience member explained to me that Feste sang in Bhojpuri, and that Olivia often used Urdu, while there were interjections in English, though the majority of the piece was in Hindi and Punjabi. The richness conjured by grabbing whatever form of expression feels the best fit for the moment is a truly wonderful approach, that pays off all the way through.
Curiously, this version too made Sebastian in some senses the designated clown, being the one who addressed the audience directly and improvisationally, and who stepped out of frame to make jokes about Shakespeare, the Director and himself as an actor.
This production was all about the joy in the tale, with only a handful of moments that called upon the darker sides there can be to the play, although Viola’s initial grief at her brother’s loss was real and touching. The effervescent energy of all the performers is easy to dwell upon, but I enjoyed how they knew when to find moments of stillness or gentleness, particularly during the many songs.
At the Sydney Opera House the audience was almost entirely Indian, and clearly having a terrific time, sharing a huge number of in-jokes and cultural references that went whooshing by me, as well as a familiarity with the music. It was such a delight to be swept up among characters I know so well, but being told the story in a way that called upon a whole additional set of experiences.
Such different experiences of theatre, and utterly divergent ways of treating the text, in service of the same plot, yet both showing what a vivid story is painted when the artists bring their hearts.