REVIEW: Twelfth Night: A Queer Reimagining (TAPAC)

Review by Anuja Mitra

Photography by Rose Herda

Presented as part of the Auckland Pride Festival 2024, Arden Ensemble’s Twelfth Night was variously advertised as a lesbian reinterpretation, an LGBTQIA+ retelling, and a queer reimagining. ‘Reimagining’ may best fit the bill. Director Rose Herda and her players have staged a vibrant rendition of Shakespeare’s comedy that delivers the usual laughs and shenanigans — with an unmistakably contemporary feel. 

Twelfth Night isn’t a difficult play to cast in a queer light. For those who haven’t seen or studied it, we lay our scene in Illyria, where Viola finds herself shipwrecked. When she disguises herself as “Cesario”, a male attendant to Duke Orsino, she’s thrust onto even stormier seas: desperately in love with Orsino yet sent to woo Countess Olivia on his behalf, only for Olivia to fall in love with Viola believing she’s a man. Though the play’s ending purports to reestablish the heterosexual status quo, modern audiences may be left with a few questions: Did Orsino fall for Cesario the man instead of Viola the woman? Was Olivia, in becoming smitten with Cesario, really endeared to Viola’s manner, Viola’s mind? And can her affections be so neatly transferred to Viola’s twin brother Sebastian? 

While I wouldn’t have minded a looser adaptation that took more liberties with the script, I enjoyed Arden Ensemble’s choice to heighten and tease out the homoerotic subtext already in the play. The modern interpolations (colloquial asides, Elizabethan versions of chart-topping songs) stand out in a good way, never feeling clumsy or overdone. Twelfth Night is one of Shakespeare’s most accessible works, and this production lets the bard’s words speak for themselves.

It’s emphasised from the beginning that Olivia (Rebecca Scholtz) has “abjured the sight / and company of men”, having rejected every suitor who has called at her door. The connotations of this — that perhaps Olivia isn’t interested in men — are underscored by her insistence that she simply cannot love Orsino (Hunter Easterbrook). They’re confirmed when she realises the true nature of her attraction to the ‘pageboy’ Cesario (really Viola, earnestly portrayed by Isabella Creemers). This introduces a fun layer to her interactions with Viola, and with us; the audience who shares her knowledge of Cesario’s secret. Her pursuit of a love that goes against the norms of her time also adds new dimension to Olivia herself. When she declares “what is decreed must be, and be this so”, it feels like a plea for fate to work out in her favour despite the society that stands in her way.

The queerness doesn’t end with Olivia and Viola. The show also seizes on Antonio’s complete devotion to Sebastian and Orsino’s growing chemistry with Cesario. It’s futile to pick standouts in a cast where even the minor roles shine. That said, Easterbrook is consistently strong as the mercurial Orsino, as are the dynamic trio of Aidan Lloyd as Sir Andrew, Nat Dolan as Sir Toby, and Sophie Watson as Maria. Alongside Frannie Johnson’s Feste the Fool — who also provides some very nice vocals — the three make the most of every scene. Having not read or seen Twelfth Night in a while, I’d forgotten just how prominent these characters’ subplot is. The show ensures their hijinks are entertaining throughout. 

Much of this success is due to Herda’s blocking, which effectively highlights the physical comedy (the tricking of Malvolio (a great Jack Chen-Sinclair) is particularly memorable). It works equally well in quieter scenes, maintaining the relationships focus important to the play and especially this pride-themed version. There’s a bittersweet-ness to the climax, allowing us to feel for Olivia’s unrequited love (well-performed by Scholtz). While all the pieces fall into place for Viola and Orsino’s romantic ending, she’s left on the outskirts, seeking comfort in new friends Sebastian and Antonio. But sorrow can only be fleeting when there’s a jig to be danced — closing the show in traditional Shakespearean style. 

It’s always a treat to see a classic play mounted with passion and professionalism. Arden Ensemble launched in 2023 with their modernised Much Ado About Nothing. I hope to see the group continuing to afford opportunities to younger and emerging actors and staging many more shows in the future. Judging by the audience response to their thoroughly enjoyable second show, I don’t doubt that they will. 

Twelfth Night: A Queer Reimagining played TAPAC 21st to the 24th of February 2024

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