Like anyone with discerning tastes, my first brush with Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night was the 2006 romantic comedy adaptation She’s the Man, starring Amanda Bynes and Channing Tatum. She’s the Man is modernized to the highest degree: the setting, language, and characters are all updated to jive with a 21st century teenage audience. The success of the film is a testament to the extreme elasticity of Shakespeare’s plays, especially his comedies.
Last night’s On The Rocks performance of Twelfth Night at The Byre pulled the play’s strings in a similar direction to different effect. Using Shakespeare’s original language, the performance relied on the play’s inherent musicality as well as excellent characterization to bring this 17th century text to a modern university audience.
Director Oliver Gillford’s most obvious leap towards modernization was the introduction of a four-piece band, Ricky Thunder and the Thought Police, which provided live music throughout the show, mainly covers of hits from 2000s alternative bands such as All Time Low and Fall Out Boy. I have to confess that, as a longtime fan of the two great bards, Shakespeare and Pete Wentz, I’m slightly upset I didn’t think of this connection myself. These “old and antique songs” help provide a sense of familiarity in a play marked by the elusivity of its language and characters.
Not content with recent hits, the play also takes on lyrics Shakespeare himself included in Twelfth Night. The results are remarkable. The cast’s rendition of “O Mistress Mine”, performed by Bailey Fear as Feste, taps into the lyrics’ latent melancholia and the result is an emotional ballad that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Top 40 radio station. Similarly, the play’s closing song, another performance by Feste, has its roots in moody arena rock. Through this mix of modern music and Shakespearean lyrics, the production taps into the play’s preoccupation with the role of music in both drama and everyday life. The result is a fully musical experience.
In addition to the musical performances, the production’s interpretation of the play’s characters is also something to be admired. The actors have such an authoritative grasp on the language and movements of the characters that it’s easy to forget you’re watching a student production. Eleanor Burke’s vivid portrayal of Viola is attention-grabbing. Sebastian Allum’s Orisno carries all the egotistic lethargy of a washed-up rockstar. Each portrayal serves as a reminder that Shakespeare’s characters are more than just words on a page or essay topics; they’re living, breathing people who always seem more real than fictional.
In Act II, Feste asks whether he should sing “a love-song, or a song of good life”. His companions opt for a love song, but nevertheless a celebration of good life is hardly absent from the play. Rather than a tale that simply ends in lovers meeting, Gillford’s Twelfth Night explores the musical depths of the play and cuts to the aspects of the text that are truly timeless: the nature of people and their love for good music. The production seamlessly meshes the past with the present in a way that is wholly Shakespearean while still wholly original.