Review: Twelfth Night (Hart House Theatre)

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Hart House Theatre’s take on Twelfth Night is endearing but leaves much to desire for Shakespeare aficionados

Twelfth Night is not my favourite Shakespeare comedy, but it was the first I ever read. Back in ninth grade, I was introduced to the Bard with this sweet, saucy, and sometimes cruel tale of mistaken identity, trickery, and frustrated lovers. Hart House has staged a handsome production that showcases a beautiful set and lively performances.

The show is never boring, but neither is it particularly inspiring. Director Matthew Gorman has placed the action in a contemporary setting—a British-style pub. The aesthetic of khaki pants and woolen sweaters creates a homely atmosphere that put my companion and I in mind of Mumford and Sons.

Twin siblings Viola and Sebastian are separated by a shipwreck and find themselves in Illyria. Viola disguises herself as a boy and finds work in the house of Count Orsino. Orsino attempts to woo the Lady Olivia, but she—as these things go!—falls for Viola (dressed as the boy Cesario). Viola, in her disguise, secretly pines for the love of Orsino. There is a subplot in which several members of Olivia’s household prank her pompous steward, Malvolio. Confusion and hilarity ensue; everything is set right at the end.

The set is well constructed and was pleasing to my eyes, but it does not serve the narrative. All those doors, the stairs, the nooks and crannies… are better suited to farce where multiple bits of frivolous business can happen simultaneously. I do not consider myself a purist, but I strongly believe that with Shakespeare the focus should be on the poetry and dramatic intimacy, not wild entrances and exits. There is a skewed spatial awareness that makes much of the action hard to believe. For instance, where the plot often requires that characters be hidden, the reality of the set keeps them in plain sight.

After the violent storm that has shipwrecked Viola and separated her from her brother, the character should be distressed about brother’s supposed death and fearful of her fate in a strange land. But in this comfortable pub, her appearance and demeanor upon entering—with perfectly intact suitcase in hand—suggests that she’s just run in from a rainy night looking for someone to call her a taxi.

The actors speak the verse too quickly, perhaps to illustrate familiarity and comfort with the text. Instead, the technique obscures the language and its beauty is lost. The nuances that distinguish one character from another are often sacrificed for laughs. This is particularly troublesome with the rowdy and flamboyant trio: Sir Andrew Aguecheek, Sir Toby Belch and Feste.

The boisterous yet unsubtle delivery of the Shakespearean text and the counter-intuitive set will cause people unfamiliar with the play some problems fully understanding what’s happening on stage. Why are these noble people and their servants all living together in this pub?

Those familiar with the text will, of course, have no trouble following the plot, but may be disappointed by how little of the poetry comes through in the delivery. Focus is on the dynamics of the physical space. Unconventional staging can enhance one’s appreciation of story, but this is not the case here. While not entirely nonsensical, the decision to set everything in this pub makes the realistic action seem unnecessarily stagy.

In any production, no matter what the flaws, the sheer power of Shakespeare’s writing will shine through at some crucial point. In this production, things came together rather nicely in the final scene where Sebastian and Viola are reunited and secrets are revealed. Finally given the opportunity to truly listen to these characters, I found myself rather moved by their story’s end.

Coming to it with a deep appreciation of the language, neither my companion nor I were particularly fond of this production. However, the performers’ enthusiasm is endearing and keeps the action moving forward at a good pace.

Details:

  • Twelfth Night plays at Hart House Theatre (7 Hart House Circle) until November 23
  • Shows run Wednesday to Saturday at 8pm, with an additional matinee at 2pm on the final Saturday.
  • Tickets prices are as follows: Adults $28 / Seniors $17 / Students $15, with special $10 Student tickets on Wednesdays and $17 Alumni tickets on Thursdays.
  • Tickets can be purchased online, or by calling the box office at 416.978.8849

Photo of Alexander Offord, Will King, Darcy Gerhart and Arlin Dixon by Scott Gorman