Revising Shakespeare for the sake of accessibility is a fraught task to say the least – so lovingly crafted is the Bard’s language, so intimately tied to characterisation and theme, that to change one word could risk sinking an entire scene. And few of his plays risk losing something in translation more than Twelfth Night, which is built upon a labyrinthine web of obfuscation and deception – translate too literally, make the plot too accessible, and you risk losing the farcical disorientation in which the tale’s humour lies. It is most impressive, then, that this production of Twelfth Night from the Aspets – a group of Italian secondary school English students – works as well as it does: presented in an abridged and modernised form, it nonetheless manages to preserve the spirit of the original text, not least due to an excellent set of central performances. The story outline is unchanged, following the loves, feuds, and deceptive plots of a disparate group of characters on the exotic isle of Illyria, in a tale rich with misunderstandings and melodrama even by the standards of Shakespeare’s comedy.
The production’s greatest triumph is its grasp of the tone of the original work, which comes across in the performances and staging: The Aspets show a keen awareness that the play is fundamentally a sort of proto-absurdist work, a story centred on the disconnect between the grandness and importance the characters attach to their emotional dramas and the risibility with which they come off in actuality. The players perform their parts with the mannered, over-wrought yet deliberately inert quality of actors in a Yorgos Lanthimos film, with perhaps the most memorable turn being that of the actor playing Malvolio, who plays the pretentious steward like an adolescent who’s read a single paper on the concept of the Byronic hero and taken it as a guide for life. The blocking and choreography are similarly well-attuned to characterisation, with the highlight being a duel which is built to with great pomp and then staged as a childish slap-fight. There is an understanding displayed here – of a kind too rare – that Shakespeare did not write his plays to be archived and pored over like sacred texts, but to be dynamically performed and viscerally experienced, and this lack of over-reverence leads to a lighter, looser production that nonetheless understands what makes its source material work.
Although, not every creative choice works – the use of snippets contemporary music wears thin quickly (Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet is well over twenty years old – simply having modern pop stylings turn up in an unexpected context is no longer a novelty), and while the minimalistic staging – consisting solely of setting projections and a few furnishings – certainly suffices, it feels almost like a wasted opportunity to take the effervescent, puckish tone even further. Overall, though, the Aspet’s Twelfth Night stands as one of the most novel and purely entertaining plays of this year’s On the Rocks Festival, and one of the more inventive Shakespeare reinterpretations of late.