I studied Twelfth Night four years ago under the guidance of my English teacher, who passed away this year in August. Although I know that I wasn’t his best student, my admiration and appreciation for Shakespeare and English literature stems from his guidance and teaching. I went to see this comedy at the Cygnet Theatre with high hopes, and left pleasantly surprised by its quality.
The Sun & Moon Theatre, first formed in 2013 by University of Exeter alumni Melissa Barrett and David Johnson, has staged a memorable and fun-filled production of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night – with an interesting twist on time and place.
Originally set in imaginary Illyria, Shakespeare’s renowned comedy of desire, unrequited love, delusion and deception has been relocated to Christmastime England during the First World War. While still experiencing grief and loss, the characters distract themselves from the painful reality they are facing.
The phenomenal cast presents a rich and powerful performance, reflecting the period as a time of emotional, political and social upheaval for the people of its time, much like 2016 was for us. Like these characters, we attempted to distract ourselves from the news that circulated in the media every day. By relocating the action to Christmas of 1917, Sun & Moon Theatre enriches the plot and supplies depth to the setting and the characters as they search for happiness in a period of terrible conflict and suffering. This is achieved by adding a post-war twist to their situations – Duke Orsino is a wounded soldier, Sir Toby has a child fighting at the front and Olivia is a young widow. The highlights of the cast, however, are the iconic Sir Toby, played by Emerson Pike; Sir Andrew, played by David Johnson; and Feste, played by Mike Gilpin. Music, jokes, pranks and plenty of alcohol make this trio a festive disruption amid others’ melancholy.
Sun & Moon Theatre enriches the plot and supplies depth to the setting and the characters as they search for happiness in a period of terrible conflict and suffering
Though minimal, the staging offers enough to identify Christmas with a tree that represents a time where the highs and lows are greatly felt. In the exposition, Viola/Cesario, played by Melissa Barrett, sits on a chair stage right, while a silent movie dramatises Viola’s shipwreck on an unknown coast. This backdrop adds another engaging emphasis on the setting, when silent movies gained popularity.
Another standout production decision is the choices of costuming. Cesario and other middle-class characters are decked out in plain white button-down shirts and suspenders, whereas Olivia, a countess, wears an elegant black dress with golden sequins sown at the side. This contrast highlights the class separation and how appearances often can disguise true intentions. What is rather comical (though I do wonder whether it’s a mishap or done purposely) is how Sir Toby’s fly is open in some of the scenes as he cavorts with his partners in crime, Sir Andrew, Feste and Maria (Bryony Reynolds). In any case, this gag adds even more foolery to their exploits and abuses of Malvolio, played by Richard Knox.
An abundance of applause at the end of the performance was well deserved – Sun & Moon Theatre company proves how Shakespeare’s comedy can indeed transcend time and space, lighting a way through the tunnel of trying times and drawing us closer. I think my English teacher, though a hard realist about almost everything, would have whole-heartedly enjoyed this production of Twelfth Night.