Monday, May 5, 2014

Abbey Theatre, 'Twelfth Night': By the Roses of the Spring

A modern telling of Shakespeare's comedy might just break new ground. Photo: Ros Kavanagh.

Abbey Theatre
Apr 30-May 24

My review of Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare coming up just as soon as I cross-garter in a fashion you protest ...

There's no explaining attraction, and if Twelfth Night can assure us of anything it's that objects of desire can take colourful and mysterious forms. The cross-dressed Viola sets off a chain of romantic obsessions that brush off bittersweetly. An unrestrained outlook could reduce these crises to a simple truth: nobody in this play is getting laid. 

This isn't the case with Wayne Jordan's staging of the tale. At the arrival of the second act the conventional care given by loyal Antonio (a gentle Conor Madden) to shipwrecked Sebastian (Gavin Fullam) has evolved into something else entirely. Both are rolled out on a mattress, affectionately held in each other's arms. If Twelfth Night can open a universe of questions about sexual desire and identity, Jordan is set on including homosexual experience within that enquiry.(*) 

(*) Not that queerness is new to Jordan's work at the Abbey. Alice in Funderland's frosty Queen of Hartstown required the irreverence of a drag queen, while The Gay (depending on who you ask) was either a rollerblading cliché or a critique of such. Back in 2010 a disarming scene in Thomas Kilroy's Christ Deliver Us! had two schoolboys wait for each other after a dance class before spinning each other lovingly across the stage - a stage action I suspected Jordan had included but it's actually written into the text (not that I should have doubted the director's use of licence, clearly). 

The reimagining doesn't ends there. In lieu of period dress we have Emma Fraser's contemporary costumes, fashioning a court of scenesters. Ciaran O'Melia's set design wheels out large music speakers to suggest Orsino's palace (who is played to lavish and brilliant heights by Barry John O'Connor). The depraved den of Sir Toby and Sir Andrew houses a fridge full of Heineken. A cunning cast also work to make modern vehicles of comedy out of the text, especially Ger Kelly's prized turn as the clown Feste.

"If music be the food of love, then play on!" rolls the first line. Composer Tom Lane has taken it as instruction. From a mellifluous bed of vibraphone and cimbalom that chimes softly and mysteriously into the ether, the score considers the hearts of the players. For the i-pod listening Orsino, obsessed with the spectacle of love rather than the matter of it, dance music blasts heavily and incoherently from his speakers. A song sung by Feste changes the energy in the room completely. Kelly's sweet voice, sung over a lamenting concertina, speaks the words of an lover prepared to die for another ("Lay me, O, where / Sad true lover never find my grave / To weep there"). With other productions of Twelfth Night the romp and romance can be unbalanced. Here it begins to feel that something crucial is on the line.

When Mark O'Halloran's Malvolio first walks onstage it's with all the stiff joylessness that you'd expect of the character, burnished by the actor's penchant for physical comedy. It would be easy to stretch out the humiliation of the pompous servant to grating ends but O'Halloran's transformation into hopeful wooer at the discovery of a love letter, followed by miserable victim accused of lunacy, reveals a cutting cruelty. "Some have greatness thrust upon them" he once whispered with possibility. Manipulating the heart has dire consequences, and the production wisely pushes this.

For Malvolio, the natural lines of desire have been bent and broken. Amazingly, Antonio now shares the same fate. Arrested and believed to be rejected by Sebastian, he sadly exclaims: "In nature there is no blemish than the mind". Perhaps it is the resonating words of Panti's Nobel Call on the same stage but it's hard not to consider this "blemish" of the mind as a prejudice based on the grounds of his homosexuality. Furthermore, when the end sees various characters being married off, Antonio is left outside the reconciliation. It's digging to argue a pro-gay marriage allegory here but one thing is sure: the disappointment on Madden's face is aching.

The night is superfluous at points though. We could have done without Sebastian's turn as the Karate Kid or the barbershop rendition of The Prodigy's Firestarter. In moments like this the production prefers to showboat rather than giving vitality to the text. Ger Kelly, for his vital presence earlier, is way too enormous in the final scene as well. Finally, a stage image at the end probably could have stunningly evoked sexual rebirth and freedom if it had been developed further.

Amidst these unrealisations is one certainty. I don't know where Natalie Radmall-Quirke transports herself during her performances but the result is a state of pure possession.(**) Her turn as Lady Olivia is so tunefully and physically careful.(***) Virtuosity satisfies our need for spectacle but it becomes biased in favour of technique and demonstration eventually. Radmall-Quirke's art seems aware of this, and, furthermore, sidesteps it in order to bring us emotion that feels preciously real.

(**) Some might have been lucky to see Natalie Radmall-Quirke in a once-off performance of Nassim Soleimanpour's White Rabbit, Red Rabbit in 2012 - a piece of theatre that sees the actor handed the script onstage, not beforehand. "Impersonate an ostrich" read one of the instructions, at which Radmall-Quirke contorted herself in hilarious and inventive suggestion. Soleimanpour's play ultimately trespasses behind the illusionary powers of the actor, effectively seeing their technique unravel. I remember the last image of Radmall-Quirke lying onstage, vulnerable yet fixed in thought, as if a serious thinker of her craft.

(***) The same isn't to be said of Radmall-Quirke's longtime co-actor Ruth McGill, who I am a big fan of but the amount of flashbacks I had to Alice in Funderland, The Threepenny Opera and Dubliners during this - pretty much everything she's been in over the last two years has felt performed exactly the same way. I remember her entering a scene in Michael West's Freefall a few years ago, speechless and teary-eyed, her devices dialled way down. Somehow it was breathtaking.  

What did everybody else think?

1 comment:

  1. I totally agree with you about Natalie Radmall-Quirke. She was compellingly watchable throughout. Such control and clarity - and of course, she was really controlling how we felt. Brilliant.