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The 2024 Stratford Festival opened officially with the usual fanfare of trumpets, limos, red carpet and beautiful attire. The light drizzle did not discourage anyone who came to see the opening night performance of Twelfth Night and the attendant extras.
The production was the debut of Seana McKenna as director at the Stratford Festival and it was a success though one can always quibble about specific items. I may be guilty of the same fault but will insist that it was a highly enjoyable night at the theatre.
McKenna sets the play in the 1960s with modern costumes from that decade. She has chosen gender-neutral casting with the necessary changes and the difficulties that may appear to create. Having the clown Feste played by the talented Deborah Hay poses no issue and she does a fine job except perhaps when she decides to ham it up a bit much.
McKenna casts Laura Condlin in the difficult and controversial role of Malvolio. This Malvolio is a woman and referred to as “she” and the question is how do we take her? Is Malvolio a lesbian in love with her mistress Countess Olivia and dreaming of marrying her? That was unthinkable in Shakespeare’s time but was it au courant in the 1960s? It did not matter in the end because we just went along enjoying the production.
I do quibble with Condlin’s performance because she did not come out as obnoxious enough to catapult Olivia’s guests and servants to devise a truly nasty revenge on Malvolio.
Vanessa Sears as Olivia is delectable and wonderful as the dedicated recluse who falls in love with Cesario, who is really Viola dressed as a man and serving as Orsino’s messenger. Sears gets some of the best laughs of the evening.
Andre Sills as the love-struck and love-starved Orsino likes hugging people as do some of the others in the production. This is a nice touch, one of many of McKenna’s, to make physical and then emotional contact acceptable. Afte all, this is warm-blooded Illyria.
Hill as Viola and Austin Eckert as her identical twin Sebastian look sufficiently alike as not to raise an eyebrow from us. They are both likeable, especially Viola, as we see her falling in love with Olivia against her better judgment. Wonderful progression.
The low comedy is provided by Sir Toby Belch (Scott Wentworth), Sir Andrew Agucheek (Rylan Wilkie), Feste (Deborah Hay) and Maria (Sarah Dodd) with the help of Fabian (Michael Spencer-Davis). Toby is the boozy do-nothing manipulator of the flax-haired and foolish Sir Andrew. The scheming and clever Maria works the out letter-reading scene of Malvolio (very funny) and the consequent gulling in which she gains some respect and perhaps not enough ridicule.
McKenna opens the play with an indication of a storm with Viola and Sebastian on the balcony of the Festival Theatre. A nice touch and a scene that does not appear in the text. She also shows some survivors of the shipwreck, backpackers, attendants in Orsino’s court, gardeners, café staff and some others who add the element of a society rather than just the characters in Shakespeare’s play. Again, a very imaginative touch.
For the sword fight between Sir Andrew and Cesario, McKenna simply gives them boxing gloves and the problem is solved.
The sets and costumes by Christina Poddubiuk are appropriate and the pieces of furniture are moved on and off efficiently. For the letter-reading scene where Toby, Andrew and Fabian are supposed to be hidden behind a hedge, Poddubiuk provides several wheelbarrows with small bushes and the actors have the freedom to run from one hiding place to the next and it works superbly.
McKenna shows an active and intelligent imagination getting out the laughs and maintaining a fine pace. She did not hesitate to have suggestive sexual moves and jokes, to let the actors use their bodies in dance moves, free body movements and produce a finely tuned and superb production.
I enjoyed it.
Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare opened on May 27 and will continue in repertory until October 27, 2024, at the Festival Theatre, 55 Queen Street, Stratford, Ontario.

May 31, 2024
Cultural - Κριτική Καλών Τεχνών

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