Twelfth Night

by William Shakespeare
Singapore Repertory Theatre
Fort Canning Park, Singapore

There's a yacht in the middle of Fort Canning Park. A yacht! The SRT's Shakespeare in the Park sets have always been impressive but this year, they seem to have pulled out all the stops. Helmed by acclaimed UK designer Robin Don, we are presented us with a luscious vision of coastal town Illyria, complete with beach bar, sand and charming projections of the sea (we even get a moon which rises over the "water" at the end). Twelfth Night is a play about shipwrecks and separation as much as it is about searching for love, and it's great to see a production that anchors it firmly in this nautical world.

Originally written as a closing flourish to the yuletide season, Twelfth Night is a play that is meant to be enjoyed in the midst of festivity and Bruce Guthrie's production strikes the right note from the start. Orsino's posse sets the convivial and languid mood before the play starts, gathering round a beachfront bar to sip cocktails, sunbathe and generally soak in the scene, not unlike the crowds sprawled out on the grass watching them.

There is also a vintage accent to the production – most probably Thirties or Forties – though this was not apparent from the costumes all the time. Orsino is seen sunbathing in a pair of extremely modern-looking board shorts in one scene while Olivia's black mourning gown looks decidedly Victorian. The rest of the cast is decked out in a pleasing array of pastels but if I were to be pernickety, why is Andy Tear dressed in a yellow waistcoat and trousers? Surely, bearing in mind the important plot point of Malvolio dressing in yellow (a colour Olivia happens to detest), no one else should have gone anywhere near that colour.

Much like last year's offering of Macbeth, if there is one area that has not yet hit a consistently high level for this production, it is the acting. While there is certainly very solid work all round, one senses a gulf between the less experienced actors and the stage veterans. Shane Mardjuki as Orsino speaks with a rich, formal cadence but seems more intent on getting his lines out rather than being convinced by what he says. This was an Orsino that lacks a bit of substance; he is fine enough when on stage but we tend to quickly forget about him when he leaves. 

Seong Hui Xuan, a recent LASALLE graduate who has been showing lots of promise in a variety of ensemble roles, makes a creditable if unsteady Shakespeare debut as Olivia. Seong's transition from austere to girlish feels forced. Her naturally musical voice falters when faced with iambic pentameter. More fundamentally, she struggles to command a stage presence and resorts to rather affected gestures to gain some laughs – maniacally fluttering a fan or drawing sharp intakes of breath. I might put it to opening night nerves but I do hope she grows in confidence before tackling more demanding roles.

I had a mixed reaction to Rebecca Spykerman as Viola. Spykerman proved a veritable force to be reckoned with in Spring Awakening, belting out her songs with hunger and passion. Here, she takes some time to warm up to the role and is fairly constrained in her emotions. Yet, she does improve in the second half and turns in a warm and engaging performance as the disguised page Cesario who helps Orsino court Olivia but ends up falling for Orsino in the process.

There is outstanding support from Vicky Williamson as Olivia's spunky lady-in-waiting Maria. Williamson is a great comedienne who shines in her scenes and it was lovely hearing the Irish accent on the Singapore stage, perfectly placed for comedy. Andy Tear, who was an absolute delight in last year's Dealer's Choice, is at his bumbling best as the hapless Andrew Aguecheek, the comic sidekick to the perpetually inebriated Toby Belch (a riotous Neil McCaul). 

Finally, kudos to Adrian Pang for making Feste the jester a more lively and significant character than I ever remembered. Pang has a natural energy on the stage but one feels that he occasionally tries too hard, almost to the extent of stealing the thunder from the other characters. Does he really have to go around squeaking a little horn ad infinitum, spouting Tamil gibberish and jumping into a pond? In any case, it's hard not to indulge him after hearing his velvety jazz numbers which set the languorous and lilting mood for the mayhem on stage.

Photo Credit: SRT

And speaking of mayhem, finally we get to the most important part of the whole play: the comic subplot involving Olivia's steward Malvolio. As far as supporting roles go in the world of Shakespeare, this one is pretty difficult to top; it has been played by the likes of Alex Guinness, John Gielgud, Simon Russell Beale and the peerless Derek Jacobi. Against all this, Daniel Jenkins does a fine job indeed. Pompous, bewigged and full of that delicious lofty condescension, he manages the cross-gartered, yellow-stockinged transformation remarkably well. 

In a lovely scene, Jenkins's Malvolio forces himself to smile through an intense physical effort, earning himself a huge round of applause. There is also a quiet dignity to his Malvolio that remains with the character throughout; as Malvolio quietly leaves Olivia's service in the final scene, it's hard not to feel sorry for him for being so ill-used. Yet, I couldn’t help feeling that this Malvolio somehow did not seem vital to the plot. I've seen productions of Twelfth Night where the action all seemed to revolve around Malvolio and everything else paled in comparison. Here, the Olivia/Cesario/Orsino love triangle (or even Feste's antics for that matter) seemed to attract far more attention.

A final but related point is that the comedy aspect of the production as a whole was good but it could have been pushed even more. Twelfth Night is a play that can induce almost hysterical laughter as things rapidly slide out of control but things never seem to get to that level here. The closest we get to thigh-slapping hilarity is the sequence where the perpetrators of the prank on Malvolio stand on a parapet, trying to hide behind a coconut tree and causing one of the fruits to fall on the floor.

Photo Credit: SRT

One also gets the sense that not all the actors have mined their lines for the comic potential of the verse. A small but vital example would be the scene where Malvolio reads the letter written by Maria to him, believing it to be in his mistress's hand; "these be her/very C's, her U's, and her T's and thus makes she/her great P's", he declares, though the ribald pun on female anatomy and the call of nature is barely registered. Indeed, Shakespeare's words paint a rich and beguiling tapestry and as even as SRT's production values scale new heights, let's hope they do not lose sight of the basics.

The Crystalwords score: 7/10

*This review was written for The Flying Inkpot.

**For a review of Michael Grandage's production of Twelfth Night, starring Derek Jacobi as Malvolio, see here.

***For a review of Atul Kumar's Hindi version of Twelfth Night, see here.


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