Twelfth Night, directed by Edward Hall, Théâtre des Amandiers, Nanterre, 24 and 27 November 2012, mid stalls.
By Stéphane Huet
Edward Hall’s Propeller company chose the Théâtre des Amandiers in Nanterre for the first performance in France of its magnificent Twelfth Night, a play that exists at the edges, along borders between genders, households, life and death, sea and land, and — most movingly — between play-acting and truth. In that respect, the all-male cast made for a fascinating dramatic experiment in positing the relationship between text and stage. Michael Pavelka’s modern scenography was inspired by the atmosphere of 1950s existentialist plays, characterized by a dusky elegance and dark suits.
[…] The space was framed by pieces of furniture covered with white dust sheets, the floor was strewn with streamers and empty bottles, and gilded chairs had been knocked over by wild revellers. A cello and a tomtom had been left in the right-hand corner of the set, as reminders of the musical nature of the play. The most conspicuous element was the massive steel chandelier, which seemed to have detached itself from the ceiling to crash down right in the middle of the stage. The heavy chain to which it was still attached evoked the anchor of a boat lying high and dry, thus announcing the shipwreck of Act I Scene 2, which was cleverly suggested through a ship in a bottle and swirling movement. […] The production opened with a barefoot and slightly intoxicated duke mooning to an entourage of fellow melancholics playing music to assuage his pain. When Virginia Woolf elegantly described Twelfth Night as a play that “trembles on the edge of music”, she was dwelling on its pervasive lyricism as well as its use of song, and its capacity to use music as a medium to convey a sense of despondency.
[…] The stunning physical resemblance between Viola (Joseph Chance) and Sebastian (Dan Wheeler) only reinforced the heart-wrenching experience of seeing one’s twin brother or sister being washed away by the waves. Viola’s male disguise amplified her losing a part of herself, conjuring up the presence of her departed brother. This extremely credible dramatic effect was in part due to the choice of a male actor to assume the persona of a girl parading as a boy. Viola/Cesario’s femininity was nonetheless very briefly alluded to by the presence of a flower above her/his ear which was soon to be discarded to show that Viola/Cesario had indeed joined an all-male arena. […]
When Viola donned male garments to become Cesario, she looked at her newly disguised self in the mirror of a moveable wardrobe, as if to seek reassurance that her new identity would be taken at face value. But the spectators’ gaze dovetailed with hers to discover that her mirrored image revealed a deep sense of anxiety. This was echoed later on in the play when Sebastian described his twin sister to Antonio (Finn Hanlon): “A lady, sir, though it was said she much resembled me, was yet of many accounted beautiful” (II.1). At that precise moment, Sebastian caught sight of Viola’s reflection behind the two-way mirror of the same wardrobe, an unsettling experience for the spectators who saw one face and two persons. This dual vision underpinned the theme of multi-layered identities throughout the performance. The wardrobe serving as a sort of fitting cabin played a crucial role in maintaining this theatrical illusion, first by creating a transitional space between the stage and the wings, and also by harbouring sartorial transformations so vital to the enactment of various roles.
One of the most stunning features of this production was Ben Allen’s impersonation of Olivia. His lithe body draped in a princess-style black dress, his clear-cut features with slicked back hair and the subtle waving of a fan made for a convincing performance. […] Olivia was interpreted with the full range of Allen’s acute sensitivity, allowing him to tread a fine line between fixed expectations and improvisation. The scene in which Olivia meets Cesario for the first time provided a convincing example of how the actor’s artful keeping up appearances does not preclude love from creeping into her/his heart. This emotional restraint was counterbalanced by Olivia screaming on seeing Malvolio wearing yellow fishnet stockings and a SM style leather jockstrap. This hilarious encounter also reminded the audience that disguise was sometimes a thin veil barely concealing feelings. […] Sexual boundaries could never be taken for granted.
[…] Despite the poor legibility of the French translation above the stage, there were five curtain calls. The audience, which mainly consisted of enthusiastic high-school students who may not have had a good grasp of English, enjoyed this extraordinary performance immensely.
Read Stéphane Huet’s full-length (1430 words) review in the forthcoming issue of Cahiers Élisabéthains 83 (Spring 2013), pages 43-45. https://recherche.univ-montp3.fr/cahiers/
Stéphane Huet is currently working on a PhD at Université Paris-Ouest Nanterre-La Défense under the supervision of Anny Crunelle on “Dramaturgie de la surveillance dans l’œuvre de Shakespeare et de ses contemporains”.