Directed by Wayne Jordan. 30th April 2014.
Reviewed by Emer McHugh
The Abbey Theatre’s production of Twelfth Night acts as a deliberate intervention into a very important conversation. In January 2014, Rory O’Neill, otherwise known as the drag artist and ‘gender discombobulist’ Panti Bliss, remarked on national television that ‘[t]he only place that… it’s okay to be really horrible and mean about gays is… on the internet in the comments and… [in articles written by] people who make a living writing opinion pieces for newspapers’. O’Neill then named two Irish Times journalists and the Catholic lobby group the Iona Institute as being particularly guilty of homophobia. The people so described threatened legal action, leading Irish state broadcaster RTÉ to provide a substantial monetary settlement and to offer a public apology. The public outcry that followed that settlement culminated in the Abbey Theatre inviting O’Neill as Panti to perform a ‘Noble Call’ after a performance of James Plunkett’s The Risen People.
Panti’s Noble Call drew on Plunkett’s exploration of how oppression and societal division dominated Ireland’s past – doing so in order to make a point about homophobia today. Her speech was broadcast on YouTube, where it generated worldwide coverage and entered into an international conversation surrounding queer rights that has become rather prominent in recent months – which also takes into account the Irish government’s decision to hold a referendum on same-sex marriage in 2015, the furore over the Winter Olympics and LGBTQ rights in Russia, and Ellen Page’s recent coming out speech, among others.
Although this staging of Twelfth Night was announced before the controversy about Panti, the production is rooted firmly in this context, and can be seen as a direct intervention into the controversy. Questions of sexual identity and freedom – and the extent to which societies are willing to accept that – permeate the action, direction, and design.
We are initially presented with a bare stage dominated by gigantic gold curtains, against which a posturing, golden-skinny-jeans-wearing Orsino (Barry John O’Connor) emotes with a guitar, surrounded by gigantic amps that blast discordant music into the auditorium. The curtains eventually drop to reveal a deep blue wall, with the words WHAT YOU WILL written in large white capitals on the top right. The play’s subtitle (summarised in Musa Gurnis-Farrell’s programme note as ‘equal parts sexual promise and latent menace’) is thus set up as Illyria’s lifestyle ethos, as a way of living. Both Orsino and Olivia (Natalie Radmall-Quirke) indulge themselves in forms of performed melancholy, albeit to different degrees – the former drapes himself in a long cape and moodily listens to the electro-pop band Air on headphones, and the latter’s prim black dresses and mourning veils pave the way for a restrained, quiet sadness in the second half. Meanwhile, Sir Toby Belch (Nick Dunning), Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Mark Lambert), and Maria (Ruth McGill) stay up all night drinking Heineken and playing music by the aggressive rock/rap group Rage against the Machine, and Feste (Ger Kelly), being the fool after all, subverts gender norms and household allegiances by wearing a black skirt and singing in a haunting falsetto that recalls Robert Plant’s quieter moments. Malvolio (Mark O’Halloran), too, sees promise beyond his station – I’ve never heard ‘She that would alter services with thee’ (2.5.148-9) delivered with such delight. With a rather spirited, naïve Viola (Sophie Robinson) going incognito as Cesario, everyone seems to do whatever he or she wants. Well, almost everyone.
Eventually, Jordan’s production leads us to question the extent of this freedom. Dunning’s Toby and McGill’s Maria are particularly nasty interpretations of these characters, and their humiliation of Malvolio begins long before yellow stockings and cross-garters. O’Halloran’s Malvolio may be a ridiculous figure (his attempts to solve MOAI using a gigantic blackboard is a comic highlight, as is the attempt to surprise Olivia not just by wearing cross-garters, but a full luminous yellow bodysuit that makes him look like a psychedelic version of the BBC’s children’s character Morph). But by the production’s end, the sense that Malvolio has genuinely been wronged is palpable. Additionally, the tension between Toby and Andrew culminates in the former severely beating the latter in 5.1, leaving Andrew to exit the stage alone without the Olivia he was attempting to woo, and without the friends that he had been co-conspiring with earlier. The play’s series of marriages are not necessarily happy either: Radmall-Quirke’s Olivia is visibly distraught at losing Cesario, despite Sebastian’s (Gavin Fullam) reassurances that she is ‘betrothed to a maid and man’ (5.1.257). Sebastian, too, questions his sexuality throughout: he goes through with the marriage to Olivia with a degree of trepidation, and reluctantly rejects Antonio (Conor Madden, whose eye-patch is needed due to an injury sustained playing Hamlet in 2011, later riffed on in Pan Pan’s The Rehearsal, Playing the Dane) in the play’s closing minutes. And then there’s Orsino, forcibly landing an exaggerated kiss on Viola, determined to over-compensate for the mess.
The production’s final moments attempt to respond to this troubling climax. Following Feste’s mournful ‘The rain it raineth every day’, Viola finds herself alone on stage in nothing but her underwear. She’s shortly joined by fellow members of the cast, all similarly undressed (except for Malvolio, who’s prancing around in his Morph suit), who all begin to dance, leap around the stage, and to swing each other around. It’s loose, free, uninhibited, and extraordinarily moving to watch. The final image is of the actors standing underneath massive showers, covered by falling water, undivided by gender, class, or sexuality, and positioned right under those white letters that we glimpsed at the start of the play: Illyria’s conception of ‘What You Will’ is thus given a new interpretation. Which makes you think: in a seemingly progressive country such as Ireland, where same-sex marriage has yet to be made legal, and where (in Panti’s words) ‘not only are we not allowed to say publicly what we feel oppressed by, we are not even allowed to think it because our definition has been disallowed by our betters’ – what does ‘what you will’ really mean?