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Reviewed by:
  • Twelfth Night
  • R. H. McKeown
Twelfth Night Presented by the Stratford Festival at the Festival Theatre, Stratford, Ontario. July 30–October 28, 2006. Directed by Leon Rubin. Designed by John Pennoyer. Lighting by Robert Thomson. Music by Michael Vieira. Sound by Jim Neil. Fights by John Stead. Choreography by Nicola Pantin. With Sanjay Talwar (Orsino), Dana Green (Viola), Thom Marriott (Sir Toby Belch), Diane D'Aquila (Maria), Don Carrier (Sir Andrew Aguecheek), Andrew Massingham (Feste), Seana McKenna (Olivia), Brian Bedford (Malvolio), Roy Lewis (Antonio), Shaun McComb (Sebastian), Robert King (Fabian), and others.

Stratford's production of Twelfth Night was a good example of the fact that, while color-blindness can work in casting, myopia can be a dangerous thing. Leon Rubin elected to set his production in colonial India, a setting rich with possibilities left largely unexplored. "It was a deliberate choice to set Twelfth Night somewhere other than the traditional Western European setting used for the works of Shakespeare," states Rubin in the program notes. "We're trying to widen perspective." In recent years, he has used innovative settings for cogent reasons, and to good effect: "A Midsummer Night's Dream was set in the Amazonian rainforest. In Shakespeare's time, woods were huge and frightening, while now they're small and domestic. Setting the play in the rainforest was a way of re-imagining the fantastic view people had of the woods." Significantly, though, he never elaborates on just what that new perspective is in his setting for Twelfth Night.

The colonial Indian setting gave designer John Pennoyer a chance to go all out with color, as swathes of fabric were hung from the upper stage, and changed to indicate changes of scene. The overall effect was one of explicitly Oriental luxury, a fact underlined by the long dance sequence opening the play. The motif was also expressed in Seana McKenna's costume changes throughout the performance. As Olivia opened up to the erotic possibilities of first Cesario then Sebastian, her dresses moved from restrictive Victorian corsets and bustles in mourning colors, through the same clothes in bright silks, to a sari in the closing scenes. Her sexual awakening, visually, was represented as going native. The production did not adhere to a strict dichotomy of sensuous Indians contrasted with repressed colonials, though. Diane D'Aquila's Maria was a woman very much aware of her sexuality, and not afraid to exploit it to repel Sir Andrew and attract Sir Toby.

The setting and casting, however, caused more than one uncomfortable moment. The dynamic of an Indian Orsino pursuing, and being rejected by, an English woman edged uneasily around the racial implications. The audience gasped audibly when Cesario told Orsino that he loved a woman of "your complexion," and was told in no uncertain terms "She is not worth thee then." But Rubin did not seem to be interested in using the setting to explore issues of race. In the final scene, Orsino's threatening of Viola had just enough time to take on a racialized dimension—highlighted by Orsino's comparison of himself to an "Egyptian thief"—before breathlessly moving on with the business of the romantic comedy. This was the production's strength. Any production of Twelfth Night has to work to make the final pairings come across as believable. Dana Green [End Page 105] played a self-possessed and engaging Viola whose acceptance of Orsino was so heartfelt that their marriage almost seemed to resolve the racial tensions. Helping matters considerably was McKenna's Olivia, whose response to seeing two Cesarios was a greedily sensuous "Most wonderful!" that almost brought the house down. As a result, the play was just able to skirt the questions it raised but did not answer. It left a slightly disconcerting aftertaste, though, as Rubin exploited its Orientalist staging for its "exotic" visuals, and never fully explored the tensions of the setting.

Other directorial decisions and design elements were more successful, if underused. The birdcages at Olivia's house were appropriate enough emblems for her repression, and played a surprising role in the final scene of the play. Brian Bedford's Malvolio was a thoroughly grotesque characterization, a monster...


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