Simon Phillips’ MTC production of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night may lack a little of the comedy’s melancholy, but in Tamsin Carroll and Richard Piper it has performances as good as seen anywhere. By Peter Craven.

MTC’s Twelfth Night

Russell Dykstra, Tamsin Carroll and Richard Piper (above, from left) in MTC’s Twelfth Night.
Russell Dykstra, Tamsin Carroll and Richard Piper (above, from left) in MTC’s Twelfth Night.
Credit: Jeff Busby

Twelfth Night is arguably the greatest of Shakespeare’s so-called happy comedies. It is certainly the least typical because it is so shrouded in sadness and then turns something like the extrapolation of melancholy into madness of the most farcical kind, inflicted on a character who is dead sane, apart from that fact that he has no sense of humour. The other thing about Twelfth Night is that it’s a bit like Verdi’s Il trovatore in one solitary respect – all it requires is the four best performers in the world. 

Geoffrey Rush was originally set to play Malvolio for the Melbourne Theatre Company, the role of the pompous steward who is hurled into a state of infatuation by false pretences. In this production, Russell Dykstra is, alas, nothing like a satisfactory substitute. Elsewhere, Simon Phillips’ production is mixed – it’s visually rich to the point of gaudiness, and Christie Whelan Browne is a dazzling Olivia in ditzy-blonde mode, but Esther Hannaford is an uncertain flat-voiced Viola and Lachlan Woods is a mannered, stiffish Orsino. On the other hand, the cakes and ale crew are rather grand, with Frank Woodley sublime in his clowning as Sir Andrew and Tamsin Carroll as a sturdy utterly surefooted Maria. Richard Piper plays Sir Toby as if to the manor – or at least the alehouse – born, with great style and precision. And Colin Hay, from Men at Work, almost steals the show as Feste, the jesting songster, in a performance of untrammelled starriness. 

But Twelfth Night is impossible. I heard Ian McKellen say once that he thought it should only be performed by archangels – his version of the trovatore yardstick. 

It belongs so much to that bittersweet aspect of Shakespeare that issues into a sonnet couplet such as, “Thus have I had thee, as a dream doth flatter/In sleep a king, but waking no such matter”. And, yes, Orsino right at the end echoes that most sexually ambiguous of Shakespeare’s sonnets, “A woman’s face with nature’s own hand painted/hast thou, the master-mistress of my passion”. Viola, shipwrecked and disguised as a man, falls in love with Orsino, her lord, who sends her to woo Olivia, the lady in mourning, in his stead. Of course, Olivia falls in love with Viola, who she knows only as “Cesario”, thinking she is indeed a man. 

This is a play shipwrecked on the rocks of erotic futility and it has a swooning, aching tone of lovelorn elegy. It represents Shakespeare at his most tristful, even though there is a counterbalance to all of this, which whispers gracefully that love is tolerable, however sad, life goes on and you get by. 

Compared with the tragedies, the play is in a minor key, yet it has a musicality and depth of design that haunts the mind. At her first appearance Viola says, “What should I do in Illyria? My brother, he is in Elysium.” A scene or two later Olivia, who gives her heart to Cesario, declares that she knows her dead brother is in heaven after Feste, the Fool, tells her that her mourning could only be justified by the belief that her brother was in hell. 

The show may honour the twelfth night of Christmas but its bell tolls the end of that festivity. The logic is the logic of the late northern autumn, for the rain it raineth every day.  

It’s not hard to imagine that the man who had done happy comedy with such pastoral sparkle in As You Like It, with such more than Shavian wit and zest in Much Ado, was heading for the ineradicable sorrows of his tragic period when he wrote Twelfth Night – that and the inscrutabilities of those enigmas of the meaning-of-life plays, the so-called problem plays of which Measure for Measure is perhaps the greatest.

Olivia’s black for mourning, Malvolio’s black for puritanism, are not the courtly hectic black of Hamlet with its cascading wit and coruscating sadness but they are grave enough. Yet the funny thing is that with Malvolio it’s his gravity, his proto-tragic difficulty in ever raising a smile – which comes thundering down in that final strangled cry of “I’ll be revenged on the whole pack of you” – that catapults the play into mayhem and comic deliciousness.

Twelfth Night is a pseudo-farce pivoted on the premise that there isn’t much about the world that’s funny, and it works like a dream, not least when Malvolio is presented as a madman. It plainly belongs to the period when Shakespeare was writing for the man who must have been the subtlest and bitterest of his fools, Robert Armin, who created the role of the Fool in King Lear

Simon Phillips’ rich, ostentatious, consistently diverting production of Twelfth Night begins in swirling mist-laden blue greys as Feste sings an enthralling dirge-like “Fear no more the heat o’ the sun” (from Cymbeline). It milks the note of grieving with a histrionic grandeur you can hardly object to, and Colin Hay is magnetising throughout the evening with his Scottish burr and his rockstar difference. He gives a powerful insinuation of the wit that underlies the sorrows of the earth and puts them through their paces. It’s not quite an elegiac or a softly cynical Feste but in its way it’s irresistible. And so too is Christie Whelan Browne, who is a toppling comical Olivia of capsizing crazy-cat dazzle with Maggie Smith-like timing of great slyness and style and purring wide-eyed dimwittedness. She commands the stage more than any of the other leads. Esther Hannaford’s Viola is not false but she doesn’t muster the technique to go deep and so tends to look bewildered rather than forlorn. In designer Gabriela Tylesova’s over-the-top Jacobean baroque gold brocade, Lachlan Woods as Orsino is merely foppish and you’re encouraged – in an old-fashioned and unhelpful way – to think he would much rather Viola stayed as a boy. Cesario and his courtiers camp around Orsino like a kind of swarming bee club. Pleasant enough to behold, if you like that kind of thing.

And Russell Dykstra – the man who is superbly, painfully real in Richard Roxburgh’s film of Romulus, My Father – is quite limitingly camp as Malvolio so that he cannot, as Malvolio should, release the dormant melancholy of the play into a dynamised charade of madness. He just simpers and frets at the edges of an action that eludes him at every point. 

Enter the roisterers, who are a delight. Frank Woodley is utterly decrepit as Sir Andrew but with enough sadness under the cartoon to catch at the heart, and the physical buffoonery with swords, with doorways, is done with a grandeur of ineptitude that enchants the mind. It’s a superb venture into classical theatre and shows how amenable it is to the insuperable majesty of the clown. 

As Maria, Olivia’s servant, Tamsin Carroll is everything she should be – tough, easygoing and hell-making. She could command any stage in the world in this role and that’s not something that could be said of many of her fellows.

It could be said of Richard Piper as Sir Toby, however. He’s a tough, seasoned aristocratic funster absolutely secure and on the note when he stares down Malvolio. “Art any more than a steward? Dost think because thou art virtuous there shall be no more cakes and ale? ... A stoop of wine, Maria.” We hear the immemorial authority, as crisp and precise and pulled back as a cavalry charge, of the natural born classical actor in comic mode. Piper is as good a Toby Belch as you could hope to see.

Phillips’ production is an animated, overdressed whirligig that will beguile the senses and – let’s face it – dumbfound any intelligence that tries to struggle against it. It’s a razzamatazz Barnum-and-Bailey Broadway musical of a Twelfth Night. However, everything Tylesova does to substantiate Phillips’ vulgar and extravagant dreams of Illyria works in the direction of sumptuousness – so much gold, so much ooh-ah gasping and eye-grabbing gooiness. You can’t complain. The gap with Malvolio might have been filled in all sorts of ways. If I’d had the world to choose from, Ralph Fiennes, such a dazzling comic actor when he sends up his capacity for fixity of purpose, would have been my pick. 

But, hey, it’s never easy when you lose a lead, and Christie, Frank Woodley, Richard Piper and Colin Hay will keep you carolling through the night.

My hunch is that Shakespeare might have preferred to bring down the curtain with Hay on a more sombre note – as if all this were a preamble to the cry of “Who’s there?” at the start of the play about the prince and the ghost. This is still a Twelfth Night you’ll want to see, though, and when you do you’re likely to find it hard to murmur against.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on December 8, 2018 as "No holds Bard".

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Peter Craven is a literary and culture critic.

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