Just as their forbearers – William Butler Yeats and colleagues – did before them a century ago in establishing Dublin’s Abbey Theatre and shrugging off old traditions while honoring the aesthetic freedoms of writers and actors, the present-day leadership of Ireland’s oldest stage venue does exactly the same with their hosting of an on-going and innovative ‘Twelfth Night.’
Consider some of the many elements of this most modern of productions – sexy, partially-clothed men traipsing gymnastically across the stage; a seemingly modest yet nubile lady, provocatively dressed in men’s clothing; a music-loving, Freddie Mercury lookalike glued to headphones; a rhythmic African drum session; a bearded, guitar-playing ‘Hagrid-like’ balladeer; a whiskered man resplendent in a suit of shining medieval armor; a priest wearing a monster mask and minimalist stage props amounting to no more than a set of giant wooden music speakers and a large, lighted glass box ‘with bay windows’ inside of which is trapped a man in a tight, lurid yellow body-stocking.
Sounds palpably delectable, and interesting too, eh?
And it most certainly is.
More than three hours of theatre (with a short 15-minute interval) seem to whiz by as the audience remains entranced by a most comical and creative post-modern shaping of the English bard’s take on intriguing subjects as diverse as class, gender and sexuality, and are ultimately left wondering whether the ‘mistaken identity’ farce is about the meaning of madness or the meaning of love, or indeed whether is there much betwixt the two.
The on-stage interpretation by director Wayne Jordan, his first Shakespearian play for the Abbey, is both infectious and beguiling and filled with such a rush of unexpected elements one barely has time to absorb fully each of their individual meanings within the whole. Included among there is even a delightful grand finale when, after the last scene ends, the whole cast appear again on stage, all dressed in white, and perform a complex, carefree and carefully-choreographed dance movement, man with man, woman with woman, man with woman, which ends with them standing shoulder to shoulder under giant overhead showers. A wonderful image depicting an underlying message: gender is irrelevant when it comes to love.
This production features many fine performances but one that stands out is that of Mark O’Halloran as Malvolio, who captures the arrogance-superficiality-servility combo of his character brilliantly.
With so many nuances to discuss, there’s no better post-performance place to do so than the theatre’s expansive, first-floor bar area, in the company of Ireland’s acting and arts elite including Hugh Leonard, Siobhan McKenna, Sara Allgood, Tom Murphy, Brian Friel, Maire Nic Shiubhlaigh, and, of course, W.B. Yeats – all of whose portraits decorate the walls.