Twelfth Night or What You Will, by William Shakespeare | Directed by Eamon Flack

Belvoir (http://belvoir.com.au) | Belvoir Upstairs Theatre, Surry Hills, Sydney | Until 4 September

The twelfth night after Christmas was a medieval festival of food, of drink, of songs and entertainment, and of licensed disorder under the reign of the Lord of Misrule. It was for this celebration that Shakespeare wrote Twelfth Night or What You Will.

Suitable for the topsy-turvy world under the Lord of Misrule, nothing is as it seems in this play. Girls are boys, masters are made fools, and no one is who or what they seem. Drunkenness and revelry disturbs the peace of the play, just as twelfth night festivities disturbed the relative peace of Tudor England.

Viola is shipwrecked in a storm that (she thinks) claimed her twin brother Sebastian. In order to survive, she takes on the persona of Sebastian to become Cesario and work for Duke Orsino. Orsino sends his new page to plead his love to grieving Olivia. And so begins a love triangle of epic proportions, with Olivia falling for Viola/Cesario, and Viola falling for her Duke.

Meanwhile, the servants of Olivia’s house — as well as her drunken uncle Sir Toby Belch and his lovelorn buddy Sir Andrew Aguecheek — are raising both havoc and the ire of Malvolio, her steward, who shuts down their revelries. In turn, they use deception and deceit to make a fool of him.

Of course, being a Shakespearean comedy, all’s well that ends well. Hmm, that would make a great title for another play … Masks are removed. Misunderstandings are cleared up. All who should be together end up together, and we can whiff confetti in the air.

Belvoir’s production delightfully embodies the spirit of twelfth night and gives us an energetic show full of movement, music and merriment. All actors appear in the masks of whiteface to constantly remind us that all is not as it seems. They work tirelessly in ensemble, and use innovative and creative ways to present such events as a storm and a shipwreck.

The songs are purely Shakespearean in lyrics, but have a modern flavour in music, marrying the Renaissance with the present day. Thanks to composer Alan John for creating it, and Emele Ugavule’s (Antonio) voice — pure and strong and beautifully poignant — for conveying it.

Olivia’s household, particularly, pump up the fun and energy. Amber McMahon is physically and vocally hilarious as servant Fabian, and Anthony Phelan’s Andrew Aguecheek takes ‘foppish old git’ to a whole new level. Peter Carroll’s pompously evil-looking Malvolio, head of the household, who is deceived into thinking he has Olivia’s heart, is all the more funny when he becomes a lovelorn popinjay. Similarly, Anita Hegh delights as Olivia, who becomes gradually more dishevelled in costume and in character as she falls evermore under the spell of Cesario/Viola, then Sebastian.

The Shakespearean fool often takes centre stage to provide wise commentary and editorial on the action, and Keith Robinson’s Feste is allowed full reign to fulfil this purpose. This is Robinson’s first outing on the Belvoir stage since 2006, when diagnosed with a variant of Guillain-Barre Syndrome. The fool is not often confined to a wheelchair, but it does not diminish this fool’s stage presence.

This accomplished actor’s face and voice carries all he wants to communicate — the wise, the funny, the satiric, the snide. He’s particularly on fire when throwing in the odd meta-theatric aside: “Oh don’t worry, that’s just a 17th-century real-estate joke” and “Now, let’s think about that line for a moment …”

Kudos to the entire cast and crew, particularly director Eamon Flack, for sculpting a production that at once captures the original essence of this play in its entirety (dated references and all), while rooting it firmly within our contemporary sensibility.

All images: Brett Boardman