Twelfth Night, presented by Bard on the Beach at the Mainstage Tent, Vancouver, Canada, 29 May-27 September, 2008.

Julie Sutherland
University of British Columbia/Pacific Theatre

Julie Sutherland. "Twelfth Night, presented by Bard on the Beach at the Mainstage Tent, Vancouver, Canada." Early Modern Literary Studies 14.2/Special Issue 17 (September, 2008) 25.1-9 <URL:>

    Directed by David Mackay. Costume Designs by Mara Gottler; Stage and Scenery Designs by David Roberts; Composer & Music Direction by Murray Price. With: Todd Talbot (Orsino); Robert Moloney (Sebastian); Gerry Mackay (Antonio); Christopher Gaze (Sea Captain); Gaelan Beatty (Doorman); Lopa Sircar (Curio); David Marr (Toby Belch); Ryan Beil (Andrew Aguecheek); Andrew Wheeler (Malvolio); Patti Allan (Fabian); Scott Bellis (Feste); Melissa Poll (Olivia); Lois Anderson (Viola); Tiffany Lyndall-Knight (Maria); and Christopher Weddell (Priest).

  1. The most notable characteristic of Vancouver’s Bard on the Beach production of Twelfth Night was that it was genuinely, indeed uproariously, funny. While situated in the First Folio under “Comedies,” Shakespeare’s mid-career play has always hung in an awkward balance between very comical and uncomfortably serious. Despite what David Mackay – this production’s tremendously talented director – refers to as the play’s “melancholy underbelly,” Twelfth Night was celebrated by Bard on the Beach as one of Shakespeare’s finest feats of comedic genius.

  2. The production began, like many, with 1.2 and a shipwrecked Viola asking, “What country, friends, is this?” In this production, relocated to the Roaring Twenties, the entire scene was presented on silent film in black and white, at approximately 18 frames per second. (Appropriately for this production’s anachronistic departure from the original, even this cinematic segment was created digitally and then edited to look like period silent film.) Through this hypercinematic presentation, any sentimentality and melodrama was rendered ironic. Swept through this frequently over-acted scene, with a nod to the old 1910 Vitagraph production of the same, the audience then met Duke Orsino, whose famously saccharine “If music be the food of love play on” (1.1) was self-consciously over-sweetened through its transformation into song. This opening lyrical piece was inspired by Roaring Twenties music stars, sounding like Fred Astaire singing George and Ira Gershwin. In fact, the deep melancholy from which Orsino suffers in Twelfth Night was diffused in this production through the Duke’s likeness to Clark Gable, a ladies’ man who could find an antidote for ‘incurable’ lovesickness in the next beautiful woman. Once again the 1920s setting aided this production’s quest for unadulterated comedy.

  3. The rationale for the 1920s setting was very intelligent. Mackay remarks in the program notes that this was a “topsy-turvy era,” one in which “starlets of the time flouted their sex appeal through an androgynous persona.” His interpretation was realised in part through the carefully and beautifully designed costumes that reflected the women’s androgyny and/or inclination toward rebellion. Inspiration for Maria was found in Helen Kane’s coquettish Betty Boop; Fabian, here transformed into a woman, references the stage and screen comedienne Fanny Brice. These individuals are pitted against many “party poopers who demanded society follow a stronger moral conduct.” The analogy between 1920s America and an Illyria that is informed by Elizabethan morality was clear.

  4. This adaptation necessitates certain interpretive additions. Throughout the script the director interpolated multiple humorous and anachronistic (even to its new setting) remarks and gestures that suggested he did not trust Shakespeare’s own comic genius. In 1.2, for example, a sailor questioned Viola’s request that “Thou shall present me as an eunuch to him”, asking, “What’s a eunuch?”; later, Aguecheek inserted a “Shall I compare thee to a pregnant lady” in 1.3, and in 3.4 offered up his middle finger when Sir Toby Belch’s instructed, “as thou drawest swear horrible.” This production also showed Maria executing John Travolta disco moves and Orsino singing “a dying fall” four times rather than one in a comic act reminiscent of a stuck record (1.1). Purists may question this necessity, but many may not. These interpolations seem to me to be refreshing rather than embarrassing – they seem to translate Shakespeare’s comic genius for a new age. There were two high school groups comprising a good number of the 520 patrons in the audience, and they were in hysterics through most of the play, something one rarely sees when showing that age group the 1980 BBC film of the play.

  5. Despite the interpolations, the production was very conservative in its presentation of Shakespeare’s bawdy. If Mackay did not always feel assured that the text would stand for itself where some comedy is concerned, he trusted a twenty-first century audience to guess at double entendres without the actors resorting to frustrating exaggerated gestures at every turn. The only line that was augmented with extraneous sexual gestures was Aguecheek’s declaration that he would not “undertake [Maria] in this company” (1.3). This did not mean the production was bereft of sexual innuendo, only that Mackay let the bawdy speak for itself

  6. Where this production did lack sexual innuendo, or at least sexual tension – possibly to a fault – was in its presentation of the relationship between Antonio and Sebastian, the former of whom is often portrayed as deeply in love with the latter. In this production Antonio was an underworld figure reminiscent of Al Capone (with a dismayingly distracting accent). While this translation to gangster from perceived pirate worked in theory, in practice this rendering made Antonio too rough to warrant lines such as “I do adore thee so” (2.1.47). In this context such lines were neither sad nor lovely – they simply did not work. Similarly, this execution of the character removes the tragedy from Antonio’s perception of betrayal, replacing it with comic dramatic irony. When in 3.4 Antonio, believing Viola to be Sebastian, asks for some of the money that he had given to Sebastian, Viola says she does not know him. Because this Antonio was so rough we felt no pity for him, and rather revelled in the hilarity of Antonio and Viola’s confusion. The displaced tragedy of this moment was in part due to the incredible comedy in Lois Anderson’s portrayal of Viola/Cesario, whose expressions of confusion and amazement at Antonio’s request were tremendous.

  7. Throughout this production Anderson provided a refreshing interpretation of Viola, comfortable in her androgyny and unafraid of Olivia’s doting. Her famous “Willow Cabin” speech (1.5) was delivered without overacting or sentiment – it was rather a beautifully understated piece of poetry, and it was at this impeccably executed speech that Olivia fell unequivocally in love with Cesario. Anderson was spectacular as a Roaring Twenties androgyne who was able to comfortably defy traditional femininity. The naturalness of her androgyny was made even more realistic because her more traditional feminine counterparts were also informed by the age’s tendency to transgress gender boundaries. Olivia was a regular flapper, and Maria could smoke and drink with the same diligence as her male counterparts. Anderson’s male persona seemed a natural part of her character, and was uncompromised even upon the arrival of Sebastian and the point at which they are to be reunited (5.1). This scene often betrays the different actors’ physical attributes, but the set, designed by David Roberts, gave us the illusion of identical twins for a few extra minutes before it was broken with the recognition of significant height differences: Sebastian appeared directly above Viola, on a crossover carefully constructed so as to not obstruct Vancouver’s Burrard Bridge, a piece this designer referred to as “reminiscent of both Shakespearean and Greek architecture,” thus mirroring the “proscenium walls of the Globe as well as capturing the flavour of the Greek amphitheatre.” Viola, who was below the crossover, could not see Sebastian (nor could he see her), but the audience and the characters all revelled in this: because it was impossible to see the difference in their heights and figures, the space between the twins permitted the audience to live in illusion rather than willingly suspend its disbelief; thus, when Orsino remarked, “One face, one voice, one habit, and two persons” (5.1) nobody was inclined to disagree.

  8. This comic reunion was quickly followed by the problematic scene in which Malvolio swears revenge against those who have done him “notorious wrong” (5.1.328). Again, however, this ingenious production used its setting as a springboard for comfortably resolving what often seems uncomfortably serious. The setting in celebratory America just prior to the stock market crash was particularly useful for its ability to contend with the often ill-fitting revenge speech. For just one moment the audience felt a pang of embarrassment for this socially awkward anti-hero, but we saw him achieve his revenge as the 1920s moved into the Great Depression: Duke Orsino was bankrupted and his estate sold, and Malvolio was seen in a position of power at the FDR-inspired Works Progress Administration, helping people find employment. All of this was presented as a tableau vivant, accompanied by blues music.

  9. This final scene was certainly open to attack; however, I feel that Mackay’s conception was an effective adaptation of the original comedy. The Great Depression is here seen as the Great Leveller: although it did bring upon many people an unwelcome poverty, it simultaneously highlighted the injustice of stratified societies, a theme Shakespeare often returned to in his plays. In fact, of all the elements of this show it was this potentially controversial final tableau that I found the most appealing. In this scene, stripped of status and wealth, Viola and Orsino appeared, still happy – despite Malvolio’s quenching his thirst for revenge – and fully in love. There was no tragedy, for Malvolio was revenged and there was no melancholy, for Viola and Olivia both found requited love. Mackay’s interpretation happily resolved any uncomfortable and potentially tragic ends.

Works Cited

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© 2008-, Matthew Steggle (Editor, EMLS).