Review: Twelfth Night – the Bard goes bawdy, for better and worse

Ruth Agnew reviews Top Dog Theatre Company‘s production of Twelfth Night at the Isaac Theatre Royal, 12 August 2021.

After 17 years of alfresco Elizabethan entertainment at Mona Vale, Top Dog Theatre Company chose the majestic Isaac Theatre Royal as the venue for their first Shakespearean show under the proscenium arch. It seems the move indoors has inspired director Derek Doddington to explore the saucier side of Shakespeare, in a raucously rude reimagining of Twelfth Night.

Twelfth Night is one of Shakespeare’s popular “woman disguised as a boy” romantic comedies, with intertwining subplots adding humor and gravitas. This makes for a confusing storyline, however, that is not easy to follow in this Shakespearean erotic fanfic version.

“If music be the food of love, play on”. This oft-quoted line is spoken by Orsino in an anguish of unrequited love, and has been adapted through inflection, intonation and intention to suit numerous scenarios and settings. Never had I imagined the monologue spoken as it is in Top Dog’s Twelfth Night, with Orsino’s invocation of a sensory overload spoken a building crescendo between before finishing in time with the thrusts, grunts and groans of sexual climax.

The thruster in question is Will Alexander, returning to tread the boards in his hometown after training at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in London (RADA) and accumulating an impressive performance CV of roles on stage and screen. His is a voice beautifully suited to Shakespearean verse, rich and resonant and an absolute joy when matched with fellow RADA graduate Hester Ullyart, as Viola/Cesario. There are moments when their combined talents are electric. Ullyart transforms Cesario’s “Make me a willow cabin at your gate” speech into a sweetly haunting love ballad, and when sung in a duet with Alexander, created a moment of pure chemistry between characters.

These two helm a cast studded with brilliance. Malvolia (the feminine form of Malvolio) is played by Emma Cusdin, whose comedic chops shine in yellow cross-garnered stockings. She received applause for almost every appearance onstage. Charlie Grubb brings a sense of dignity onstage every time he appears as Antonio, while Peter Rutherford and Jeff Clark lean into the drunken revels of Sir Toby Belch and Sir Andrew Aguecheek.

Frustratingly, much of the nuance of the performances and sense of the text is lost in the heavy handed winking and nudging, simulated sexual acts and innuendo injected into every opportunity.

This overtly sexualised slant was pared back for the high school matinees. While I did not see the PG rated version, a teacher friend who went reported that while her students could not follow the plot or decipher much of the rapidly delivered lines, they “laughed lots and lots”, so this may be a great entry-level Shakespearean excursion.

This is the perfect play for anyone who has ever heard the words of William Shakespeare, and felt his blank verse and rhyming couplets would be improved by adding full frontal nudity and sexual innuendo. Purists may cringe a little at the rough and ready delivery and tone, but the opening night audience showed a raucous approval of Top Dog’s bold, bawdy interpretation.

Twelfth Night runs at the Isaac Theatre Royal from 12 – 14 August, 2021.

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