Wayne Jordan tackles Shakespeare’s serious comedy and the result is nearly three and a half hours of mystifying directorial decisions.
Viola (Sophie Robinson) and her ship’s Captain (Muiris Crowley) are washed up on the shores of Illyria. Her twin brother Sebastian having drowned, Viola adopts his wardrobe to become a male courtier to Duke Orsino (Barry John O’Connor); quickly being favoured above long-suffering Valentine (Elaine Fox). The Duke is in love with the widowed Olivia (Natalie Radmall-Quirke), who’ll have nothing to do with him. Olivia is also fending off the suit of Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Mark Lambert), friend of her dissolute cousin Sir Toby Belch (Nick Dunning). Her court is split between the punctiliousness of Malvolio (Mark O’Halloran) and the buffoonery of Sir Toby, with the Fool Feste (Ger Kelly) and Fabian (Lloyd Cooney) siding with Toby, especially when Olivia’s servant Maria (Ruth McGill) devises a prank to humble Malvolio. But Sebastian (Gavin Fullam) did not drown, he was saved by Antonio (Conor Madden), and their arrival causes comedic chaos…
That at least was what Shakespeare wrote, but it’s not what Jordan renders onstage. The opening line ‘If music be the food of love, play on’ is taken a bit … literally: 5 massive speakers are wheeled out onto the stage and Orsino plays raucous music on a mandolin plugged into them. It’s unfortunately reminiscent of the start of Michael Jackson’s ‘Black or White’ video… The speakers are (saving a fridge, table and chairs) all the set Ciaran O’Melia provides, and they’re redundant for most of the action. When active they provide comedy extraneous to the text: playing ‘Sexy Boy’ for the Duke parading his Freddie Mercury cloak, and Rage Against the Machine for Sir Toby standing on a table shouting profanities until the music is turned off. Sir Toby also gets a gong sounded when he does the crane pose during a fight, and he leads Feste and Sir Andrew in a barbershop version of ‘Firestarter’. These are all funny only by virtue of being inappropriate, but if you can’t find comedy within Shakespeare why stage him? Why not set Twelfth Night in Manhattan and sprinkle it with Woody Allen one-liners to get laughs?
This is the third Jordan Abbey production I’ve suffered thru after Alice in Funderland and The Plough and the Stars, and he apparently has no idea of pacing. Twelfth Night starts at 730 and runs until 1055 with one interval. It’s a romantic comedy, and it’s nearly 3 ½ hours long… The mark of a confident director of Shakespeare is their willingness to cut the Bard’s text. Instead Jordan inserts material: the insistence on having everyone listen while one character sings a song makes you feel you’ve wandered into some Cameron Crowe nightmare. The ‘brave’ anti-Catholicism of Alice is also in evidence, as, unheeding of Calvary’s critique of the blanket vilification of priests, Jordan decides that the priest interrogating Malvolio should be played by Feste adopting a thick Kerry accent. His appearance being preceded by a jibe from Shakespeare produces the bizarre spectacle of English Anti-Catholicism enacted via Irish Anti-Catholicism.
And then there’s Jordan’s queering of Shakespeare and weak casting… Robinson fails to project the necessary comic vivacity as Viola, indeed by the finale Viola has become a petulant teenager, and her Northern accent does not synch with Fullam playing her ‘identical’ twin Sebastian at all. But internal logic isn’t much of a concern in this production. Sebastian is introduced in bed with Antonio (in their tiny whiteys, as everyone must appear in their underwear), as a very literal reading of a few lines of dialogue is used to make them a gay couple. But Jordan wants us to applaud this enlightened reading while at the same time having Valentine play pantomime shocked when she sees it, which is just ridiculously smug back-slapping: much like Alice’s ‘satire’, Jordan appears to think he’s scandalising an audience of Eisenhower and DeValera stalwarts. And then with massive illogicality Fullam’s fey mannerisms as Sebastian are instantly dropped for an enthusiastic sexual relationship with Olivia. Sebastian is either inconsistent or opportunistic, and faithful Antonio is totally shafted by Sebastian’s marriage to Olivia, who herself is played as obviously still in love with Viola in her female guise. Internal logic schlogic…
The obvious saving grace of this production is the great Mark O’Halloran as Malvolio. He is very funny, especially in convincing himself by crazy leaps of logic that Olivia has written him a love letter. His hysterical appearance in a full yellow-bodysuit underneath his suit is perhaps over-egging the comic pudding, but it’s saved by the perverse dignity with which he replaces his glasses over his hooded head. Radmall-Quirke also exudes that quality of perverse dignity in fending off Malvolio, and the gradual softening of her icy facade is well played. Ger Kelly is also a splendid physical presence as Feste, and his delivery of Fool’s wit sparkling. The impulse to go too far is intermittently present in Lambert’s drunken Sir Andrew, but his outraged vanity gets the biggest laugh out of the script Shakespeare actually wrote. Dunning, however, feels like he’s playing Aidan Gillen’s Sir Toby, not his own.
Dunning’s unexpectedly mean-spirited Sir Toby seems to feed into a bizarre interpretation of the text by Jordan, in which he wants to queer Shakespeare by having the traditional climatic heterosexual marriages be a parade of misery. Olivia and Antonio are unhappy at losing Viola and Sebastian. The Duke marries Viola for no apparent reason, making Valentine unhappy. Sir Toby is horrid to Sir Andrew, and loses his only friend, while Sir Andrew runs away from Illyria. And Malvolio runs thru the audience, with his face stained with tears. O’Halloran is so good you feel like crying at Malvolio’s humiliation, but his exit line could be high comedy as could Sir Toby and Sir Andrew’s parting. Instead after 3 ½ hours nearly everyone ends up miserable. The finale is thus so muted that when Feste sings you half-expect the characters to come back. And then they all do, in their underwear … and gather under a giant shower-head, before running off to don bath-robes before bowing. As with so much else, such as the pointless drumming minor characters start before the audience has returned from the interval, I had no idea why that decision was taken.
This production will no doubt receive the acclaim that all Jordan’s projects get, but after three duds I can only protest such acclaim’s undeserved.
Twelfth Night continues its run at the Abbey until May 24th.