Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare

We went to see a Cambridge University production of this last night, set in a similar period to the production we saw of As You Like It we saw earlier this year.

Zak Ghazi-Torbatt was hilarious as the perpetually drunk aristocrat Sir Toby Belch (subtlety is not the long suit of this play), he worked well with his off-sider, Sir Aguecheek, ably played by Ryan Monk. Ben Walsh’s Malvolio was a object lesson in how to not overplay comic creepiness. Megan Gilbert looked like an old hand doing Maria: it’s the best of the female roles and she didn’t let it down.

The setting was not, in my opinion, important to the play, neither detracting nor adding, but fifties music and song – If music be the food of love, play on – worked a treat. However, the director decided, in that modern way that is being forced upon us, to do her part in denying gender. To this end two changes were made to the play. One is the role of Antonio, changed to Antonia and played by a girl being a girl. This was not only inexplicable in terms of the desire to mess around with gender – after all, Antonio is a boy in love with a boy – but makes the relationship with Sebastian ridiculous. There can be no explanation, of course, as to why Sebastian can’t accept the love of Antonia. Nor, in a play with a happily-ever-after ending is it sensical to have this one person inexplicably left bereft. Needless to say, if it is a male character in love with a heterosexual male, we at least understand why Antonio can’t be part of the happy ending. I do wish that we had not been denied the chance to watch that doomed love, instead of which we bemusedly watched a girl carting around a bloke’s suitcases for three months wondering who she was going to end up with.

In like vein the director changed the role of the fool to a female. Weirdly, a fool dressed as a man, but not to be confused with one, as in the case of Viola, of course. And the fool played the part as a man, had the gait and stance of a man, yet was referred to throughout as a female, the original language being changed to this end. For us this just didn’t work at all. It’s a great role which was wasted. True, it could be that the girl playing the role – Rosanna Suppa – failed, but our feeling was that she couldn’t have succeeded. It’s so not necessary to do this to Shakespeare. Write a play with a female fool. Were there female fools in the period? If there were, find out what they did and how they did it. But leave Shakespeare’s wonderful parts alone please! Turning a male role into a female one by a few strokes of the pen doesn’t cut it.

The play was performed in the International School of Geneva‘s Arts Centre. I’m baffled as to why an excellent production of a wonderful play with an admission price of 20CHF attracted about a quarterful house. I hope this is a reflection on the lack of publicity received rather than Geneva’s lacking the capacity to support such an event. The audience was enthralled, entertained and provoked by Gabriella Bird’s production and it deserves a packed house for its second performance here in Geneva tonight.

PS: It is impossible to go to see Shakespeare without being amazed at the things he writes that are still with us. This time it was ‘Westward-ho!’ Well, I never.

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