Twelfth Night (ASC) @ The Blackfriars Playhouse

‘The knight’s in admirable fooling’, remarked Meg Rodgers’s Feste, watching as Eli Lynn’s remarkable sprightly Sir Toby held court during their nighttime revels. But on the last night of Jenny Bennett’s production of Twelfth Night, this was true of everyone. This performance was a celebration, fueled by the exuberant responses of the ASC Theatre Camp kids in the audience, of the summer production, with no opportunity for mugging left unmugged, no opportunity to hold a laugh left unheld. It says something about how fun a show is that it can run some forty-five minutes longer than the advertised running time, and yet not have outstayed its welcome.

Twelfth Night is a play that enjoys an unusually well-balanced ensemble, and what this production particularly brought out was the opportunity for almost every character to play to the crowd. Sir Toby and Sir Andrew (Marcel Mascaro) competed for whoops with their acrobatic high kicks and ground flips. Olivia (Mascaro again) and Viola (Jihan Haddad) took turns appealing to the audience to take their side in the love games. Feste – with the excellent Rodgers on particularly playful form, punctuating her aloof irony with sudden broad grins as she broke a joke – began the show downstage taking an audience-eye view of the stage, and threw almost every line outwards. Even Maria (Jasmine Eileen Coles) insisted on centre-stage, holding her revelation of Malvolio appearing in yellow stockings for a hysterically and achingly long moment before dropping the news. If a line could be played for a big laugh, it was played; if it couldn’t, then the company made good and sure to add in some business to get that laugh.

Such a celebratory atmosphere inevitably meant that the production mitigated its tensions somewhat – and indeed, with a company of six who so manifestly enjoyed each other’s company (if the evidence of the group hug at the final curtain call is anything to go by), any tensions were always quickly dissipated in the collaborative play. The most interesting effect of this was in Malvolio’s (Annie Fang) letter-reading scene. Unusually, especially for a production that was playing everything so large, the eavesdroppers took a relatively unobtrusive stance in the discovery space behind a pillar; while the comedy freezes and bickering were present and correct, they largely ceded the stage to Fang, who gave a tour de force of enthusiasm for the possibility of a new romance that had the audience cheering the steward on. While Fang earlier pitched Malvolio as smug and sneering (his tossing of the ring to Viola done with a slow disdain and personal pleasure in the act), here Malvolio’s exuberance was so open that it was hard not to be swept along in that enthusiasm. When Malvolio was later revealed languishing under the stage trap, Feste’s interjection of ‘Don’t aww!’ aimed to remind the audience that their sympathies couldn’t be with everybody.

In writing this now, it feels like there should have been more of a problem here. The characters high-fived one another as Malvolio stormed off swearing revenge, delighting in their trickery; elsewhere, Sir Toby regularly pinched dollars off Sir Andrew, and similar acts of light bullying peppered the production, played for laughs. There was nominal comeuppance – Andrew and Toby both appeared with bloody noses after Sebastian (Fang) had his way with them – but no real interrogation of the bullying within the world of the play. Yet this didn’t feel necessary within the performance event, as the collaborative consent of the performers in a production that regularly drew attention to its own theatricality mitigated the cruelty. The joy of doing Twelfth Night saturated all, meaning that any moments of unkindness or sadness were almost immediately reclaimed in moments of characters’ own agency.

Key to this metatheatrical play was the doubling. With only six people, this was one of the most tightly cast Twelfth Nights I’ve ever seen. The doubling was playfully ramshackle rather than thoroughly integrated: where the structure allowed, characters would simply disappear and then return as a different character; when actors had to transition more quickly, or where their two characters had to share a scene, there would be an onstage costume/physicality shift, or a prop would be held up in lieu of the performer, or the actor would simply spin from spot to spot on the stage while having a conversation with themself. ‘Whatever works in the moment’ was the ethos, and work it did, though not without some odd effects. Antonio, for instance, was stuck hanging around on stage doing very little for most of the final scene while other actors played double-duty with themselves, and a more consistently mapped-out doubling practice might have utilised the available bodies more evenly.

It worked because this Twelfth Night had one of the most consistently excellent ensembles I’ve seen at any major theatre. The inventiveness and sheer busy-ness of the stage clowning was a joy; whenever there was a quieter moment, such as Toby explaining the duel to Cesario, there would be some other silliness going on such as Fabian (Rodgers) shuffling along the edges of a duelling area on the stage and getting in the way. The distraction was part of the point; in a world so busy, there was never time to look closely at whether the person in orange jerkin was Viola or Sebastian, or time to reflect on whether Orsino truly did love Olivia. In one great moment, Feste spotted the chemistry between Orsino and Cesario as they sat together on a bench to listen to the clown’s song; at the song’s end, as the two looked at one another, it was Feste who deliberately interrupted the moment of tension, in a recognition that, if events ever slowed down long enough for people to have a moment’s reflection, they might realise something about themselves.

This didn’t mean that there wasn’t time for reflection. Maria and Toby’s relationship was a case in point. Maria was a slowly spoken Southern maid who acted as a source of quiet calm – at least until she got carried away in enthusiasm for her own plans – and provided balance to some of the more frenetic activity. Toby, on the other hand, was acrobatic and strong (a repeated joke had Lynn demand appreciation from the audience for their muscles), pulling hidden flasks out of his clothes which Maria tried to steal away, and filling all of the character’s stage time with physical jokes. The speed of their scenes allowed them to interact – Maria at one point sat on Toby’s lap – but it was only towards the end of the play, following the Sir Topaz sequence, that they paused for a moment. Toby pulled out a flask, then paused, and handed it to Maria, before asking her to come to church with him. While we did see the characters briefly again, it felt like a perfect exit line, allowing the comedy to relax for just a moment into a moment of sincerity.

The dramatic tension often emerged from the push and pull between ecstasy and restraint. Eileen Coles was wonderful as Antonio, with a hunched swagger that bespoke strength and danger, and a sidelong glance at Sebastian that deliberately kept some distance, even as a smile after Sebastian left revealed more of Antonio’s affection. Sebastian’s ecstasy following his encounter with Olivia, on the other hand, was unrestrained. While I felt Eileen Coles was underused in the final scene, with Antonio lingering on stage and his leaving-out from the couplings up unaddressed, his quiet smiling at the two excited couples joining together acted as a kind of benediction, his embattled past separating him from this particular celebration, but not preventing him from participating in the joy.

The playfulness also emerged from the balance of predictability and unpredictability. This being the last performance, Rodgers in particular relished putting audience members on the spot with requests for responses, which were always gamely and immediately integrated back into the script. Feste’s role was as an agent of benign chaos; tried and trusted jokes such as the ‘mad’ reading of Malvolio’s letter (which was then nicely countered as Rodgers slipped off Feste’s jacket to turn into the butter-wouldn’t-melt demure Fabian for a sober reading) were juxtaposed with more wicked interruptions and disruptions that kept other characters (and by extension the audience) on their toes. The Sir Topaz scene played with the unexpected; Feste’s request for Malvolio’s opinion on Pythagoras’s beliefs was met with an eloquent response from Malvolio that completely threw Feste and Toby, who shrugged and then decided that the answer wasn’t good enough. But as Feste slammed the trapdoor back on Malvolio, the Clown then sang a deeply melancholy song, slipping into sadness, a possible lament for something lost . . . before skipping back into the fun with a wink. The playfulness of the clowning during the revels scene slipped out into the rest of the production, a reminder that this whole piece functions as carnival, and if it plays by the rules or becomes predictable, it’s clearly not being subversive enough.

Having a predominantly female and non-binary cast meant that gender play was baked in from the start; there was no need for the overdone jokes about confusing the twins at the end, for instance, as gender play was more thoroughly subsumed into the arch self-awareness of everyone’s assumed roles, both as their characters and as their characters’ characters. Mascaro and Fang in particular did great work in mapping Olivia and Malvolio’s slippages into assumed personas that they fully committed to but which were then subverted by the unpredictable interventions of those around them. Indeed, in some ways, Olivia’s ability to roll with the changes might explain why her story worked out so differently to Malvolio’s; both were easily led into ways of behaving around others, but Olivia’s responsiveness to Feste’s joking marked an ability to read others that Malvolio entirely lacked. Viola, on the other hand, was barely disguised as Cesario, and Haddad’s earnest performance suggested an impersonation that was always fragile and on the brink of collapse; when she and Sir Andrew were positioned against one another for the duel, they were literally manipulated into positions that they could not fully hold. But what marked this Twelfth Night was its collaboration in this manipulation, in ways that turned the cruel consensual, and which always returned to the shared desire to create joy. As the curtain calls descended into tears and a hug, it felt clear that there was nothing feigned about that joy.

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