by Laura Ferguson
Twelfth Night is a Shakespearean comedy about a brother and sister whose ship sinks. The sister, Viola (Rebekah Adams), for want of an honest living and thinking her brother deceased, opts to pretend to be a man and wait upon the local Duke of the land she has washed up in. Duke Orsino (Simon Davies) loves the beautiful Olivia (Charli Gartrell) though and when Viola (now pretending to be named Cesario) is bid to court fair maiden’s hand for her master, Olivia falls in love with Cesario (Viola) instead. Love triangles, witticisms and hijinks ensue.
Director Anastasia Matteini-Roberts’ idea to marry more drag into Twelfth Night becomes strangely more historically accurate whilst staying thoroughly in vogue. The original play being performed by all men as the standard went and now with cultural conversation vivisecting the confines of gender normativity, this Twelfth Night feels like a whole new animal and she is named Club Illyria. She purrs, and hisses and roars in a contoured beard and exaggerated hip pads, pink neon lights and velvet furniture. The replacing of a stuffy, refined court for a club scene easily made the play more accessible. As soon as I took my seat, I already felt like I was having fun.
This new iteration is brilliantly portrayed by the characters Maria and Sir Toby. Maria is the handmaid of the Duke’s love, Olivia and Sir Toby is the Lady Olivia’s kinsman. These two roles were gender swapped and Nick Erasmuson and Brianne Kerr as Maria and Sir Toby respectively, were delightful to watch. Erasmuson is painted for the gods and dons a pink wig adding snap-worthy dragisms to the Shakespearean dialogue, with a “Okurrr” here and a death drop there. Oh, I love it so much. Kerr, meanwhile, plys her considerable acting skill upon Sir Toby admirably. The constantly inebriated man stayed in his drunken state throughout the entire play, and was believably, jovially drunk. Kerr’s slurring, unbalanced gait and ability to maintain her character’s lack of sobriety never failed to make me laugh and she utilised nuance enough that the portrayal never became one-note or boring. Her dynamic actions instead has me in absolute stitches whenever she is on stage.
These performances showcase Matteini-Roberts’ direction shine brightest, you can see the notes she has given her actors and imparted her vision so they were able to snatch it and up their game. I can see the passion Matteini-Roberts has for both drag and Shakespeare and it blends so well within Erasmuson and Kerr that the combination seems only natural.
The ultimate culmination of Matteini-Roberts’ idea though, comes together in for the form of Ariadne Baltazar’s Feste, the fool of the Duke’s court. Baltazar’s vogues, poses, and embodies such vivacity it is hard to pay attention to anything else when she is on stage. Baltazar is exceptionally radiant when exchanging witticisms with other characters, the dialogue flowing from her effortlessly as if Early Modern English were her natural tongue. The way Baltazar pokes out her tongue or uses a hand gesture to punctuate her lines blew me away.
Such fine distinctions in the cast though, unfortunately means the main characters appear a little lackluster beside them. Like Naomi Smalls trying to do an acting challenge alongside Bob the Drag Queen, it’s gonna take more than good looks to be on par in terms of entertainment. Shakespeare can be tricky to do successfully, and while Adams and Davies who play Viola and Duke Orsino manage it well, the drag aspect ups the ante. I did wonder what would have happened if Duke Orsino was also in drag, a kind of Dr. Frankenfurter-esque figure searching for a new Rocky.
Something like that would mesh well with the other pop culture references Matteini-Roberts has dotted in the show. There is a geniusly executed use of Imogen Heaps’ Whatcha Say that I don’t want to spoil. Other modern songs are added for exposition to great effect, such as when the Duke and Viola listen to a romantic song together and we get a hilarious scene of their romantic feelings for each other coming out in a series of romantic-comedy tropes. These moments made me feel connected to the main storyline and I started rooting for the couple so I wish there were more of them. They would serve to highlight plot points we usually have to accept as fact. If we had an audio cue for moments like when Viola realises her feelings for the Duke then maybe it wouldn’t seem like it came out of the blue. It would also lean into the Club Illyria theme of this version has rendered.
The immortal quote, ‘Some are born great, some achieve greatness and some have greatness thrust upon them,’ from dear old Shakespeare and originally penned in Twelfth Night becomes an excellent summary of this rendition of the Tudor-era comedy. Matteini-Roberts’ drag-tastic version of this tale showcases she has indeed achieved greatness. The innate greatness of Balthazar as Feste, Erasmuson as Maria and Kerr as Sir Toby I shall stan forevermore. Adams and Davies had greatness thrust upon them, but alongside the bombastic nature of other players, it appears a little pale. However, this does not detract from the joy I felt leaving the show.
Twelfth Night category is: Funaganza Extravaganza, daaarling. I laughed, I cried (with laughter), I had a fabulous time. Do I hope there is an All Stars version with full-on Broadway glitz and glam style? Yes. Yes, I very do. In the vein of a more modern bard, ‘chanté please may I stay longer at Club Illyria?’
Twelfth Night is playing at BATS from the 12th - 16th of February. You can find tickets here.