Propeller returned to the stage with an off-beat adaptation of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, a play fraught with misunderstandings, trickery and mistaken identities. Nothing could have made it more apt than an all-male cast, with a man acting as a woman acting as a man. Instead of simply being a Shakespearean stage convention however, the transgression allowed the audience to focus on the romantic development of the characters rather than their gender.
The subtext of Orsino’s (Christopher Heyward) and Viola’s (Joseph Chance) love was fleshed out well, although the chemistry between them was often lacking. On the contrary, Sir Toby Belch (Vince Leigh) and Maria (Gary Shelford) formed a dynamic duo. The former had a more melancholic, complex side, whereas Shelford added a refreshing edge to Maria. Another commendable performance came from Ben Allen, whose portrayal of Olivia was as elegant as it was emotionally convincing.
Director Edward Hall gave Twelfth Night a novel touch with modern twists and contemporary cultural references. Seldom do you get to see a boxing ring appearing on stage in a matter of seconds, Maria tap dancing, or Sir Toby’s brief horse-riding motions (which suspiciously resembled a recent YouTube fad).
The production did not fall short of comedy and eroticism either, particularly when Malvolio was deceived into making a fool out of himself by wearing yellow fishnets. There were also several occurrences of almost full nudity and many bawdy jokes, which certainly provided the shock factor. Interestingly, it was the sensual manner in which Olivia said “most wonderful” at the sight of the twins that seemed to elicit the most laughter.
There was nonetheless an inherently dark tension throughout the play. Michael Pavelka’s set design of antique wardrobe-like structures, a broken chandelier and movable box trees effectively created the decaying, surreal world of Illyria. Adding to the eerie atmosphere were the musical accompaniments, from the chilling sound-affects of the waterphone, to the splendid a cappella performances. The actors took turns being the Chorus, masked figures that loom about like gargoyles or phantoms. Liam O’Brien played Feste, the omniscient “fool”, in a suave suit, and led the Chorus in the haunting variants of the songs. It almost felt guilty to laugh.
Overall Propeller’s Twelfth Night entertained the crowd with their brilliant performance, accessibility and sparkling humour. At the same time, its sinister take left a bittersweet aftertaste, a sign of the Company’s imagination and ingenuity.