A witty way to start the season…

That play Joe Fiennes (as Will Shakespeare) is inspired to write at the end of the 1998 movie Shakespeare In Love is now a season-opening hit. Ya know, that one?

Directed by Stratford Festival icon Martha Henry, Twelfth Night is a lovely, witty way to start the Stratford Festival’s 2017 season.

Henry has created a quiet, sombre first half of this play about star-crossed-dressing lovers, then a passionate (sword fights, madness, love, and bright greens and reds) second half. The transformation happens under the touch of Feste, a fool with the gift of music who is played magnificently by Brent Carver. Echoing the “music from the spheres” image (Act II,i ), Feste draws ethereal tones from several glowing white bowls which enhance the set. There’s often a hush as Carver sings solo Shakespeare.

Meanwhile, his lightning wit foils are such formidable Bardspeakers as Maria (Lucy Peacock in full feist), Olivia (Shannon Taylor as the mourning noblewoman), and Malvolio (Rod Beattie, whose clipped delivery is hilarious). With coarser wit, the drunkard Sir Toby Belch (Maria’s unlikely uncle, played boisterously by Geraint Wyn Davies) easily befuddles superfool Sir Andrew Aguecheek/Tom Rooney, who has a confused time “accosting” Maria when Sir Toby urges him.

Twelfth Night, Stratford Festival 2017
Michael Blake as Sebastian and Shannon Taylor as Olivia in Twelfth Night. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.

Dare we say, “Henry-esque”?

The Henry-esque touches are delightful. Shannon Taylor faints in full elasto-body backwards swoon when she realizes the young man she loves, Cesario, is actually Viola (Sarah Afful) in disguise. By contrast, Duke Orsino (E.B. Smith who was ML King at the Grand recently) seems amusingly unruffled to discover his future wife in the guise of Cesario, the faithful deliverer of the duke’s love-smitten notes to Olivia.

Twelfth_Night_Stratford_2017
Matthew G. Brown as Sea Captain and Sarah Afful as Viola in Twelfth Night. Photography by Cylla von Tiedemann.

Sarah Afful/Viola/Cesario has a terrific moment of mid-stage wonder when she realizes Olivia has fallen for her/him. “How will this fadge?” she muses (happily, we learn.) Geraint Wyn Davies beats percussively with his boots, in contrast with Feste’s heavenly music of the spheres. Afful and Michael Blake (as Viola’s twin brother, Sebastian) share perhaps the sweetest embrace, a sign that filial devotion guarantees wedded bliss on this night.

The contrast.

Back in the day, Joe Fiennes was writing about his beloved Viola starting a new life on a sea coast in faraway Virginia.

At Stratford this summer, Martha Henry, Brent Carver and company find the Night magical in the festive music.

That being said, you’ll want to see Twelfth Night because: It’s witty and passionate. And if you read it before going (always recommended) you’ll laugh at the shy idiotic way Tom Rooney wonders why there’s “c” and “u” and “t” in the fake letter that fools Malvolio. Look it up. You will go aha!

Twelfth Night, Stratford Festival 2017
Michael Blake as Sebastian in Twelfth Night. Photography by Cylla von Tiedemann.

You might want to skip Twelfth Night if: Well, if you had to leave during intermission, you would be puzzled and maybe disappointed. So don’t do that.

A little of the Forest City in Stratford…

Inevitable #ldnont connections: Martha Henry, Rod Beattie, and Brent Carver were all members of the Grand Theatre Company during the acclaimed 1983-1984 season when the late Robin Phillips helmed the London landmark.

This production of Twelfth Night is dedicated to the memory of the former Stratford Festival artistic director– and the 2017 version has the feel of a loving homage to Shakespeare. Opening night on Monday hosted such Londoners and former Londoners as the Grand Theatre’s Dennis Garnhum and Deb Harvey; Marcus (DuffleBag Theatre) Lundgren; Deborah (CTV’s Cardinal, Stratford, Shaw) Hay; Emma (Room) Donoghue; and Joe (CBC Radio) Cote.

Quintessential #ldnont trivia question: which London high schools did Dennis, Marcus, Deborah, and Joe attend? Yep, there is a James Stewart Reaney guaranteed prize.

Twelfth Night opened on Monday May 29 at the Festival Theatre and continues until Oct. 21. Visit StratfordFestival.ca for full season details and click here for tickets!

James Stewart Reaney keeps James’s Brander Newer Blogger at LondonFuse.ca as part of his volunteerism and reverence for London A&E. He recently retired from The London Free Press after more than 30 years covering everything from A – The Alcohollys — to B: baseball’s 1986 World Series. Follow his Twitter #ldnont thoughts via @JamesSReane

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