Vienna’s English Theatre presents Twelfth Nights in an uneven yet endearing version


As the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death draws to a close, his inexplicable absence has been noted at Vienna’s English Theatre (VET). Yet all’s well that ends well: Straight from the Midsummer Scene Festival in Dubrovnik, director Helen Tennison brings the Bard’s  popular comedy Twelfth Night to the city’s most prominent English-language stage. Originally played outdoors in Fort Lovrijenac, within the ancient Kingdom of Illyria where Shakespeare originally set his play, this production has made a smooth transition indoors, aided by Marin Gozze’s utilitarian set: a sun-splashed courtyard harbors a steady stream of activity, the archways furnished with tableaus cast in sunshine and moonbeams, expertly lit by Aleksander Mondecar. The actors exhaustively explore every nook and cranny of the VET’s relatively small stage.

Shipwrecked and separated, the twins and romantic leads Viola (Helen Watkinson) and Sebastian (George Oliver) grieve their parting, each believing the other dead. While navigating the topsy-turvy pre-Balkan landscape, happenstance steers Viola (now disguised as Caesario) through much gender-based confusion, leading to an end-of-season tryst, a reunion with her brother and finally, a double wedding of the siblings to their soul mates Orsino (Jason Eddy) and Olivia (Helen Millar).

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© Vienna’s English Theatre

Countess Olivia’s English uncle, Sir Toby Belch, the Lord of Misrule (James Burton) and his comic cronies, Maria (Emma Fenney) and Andrew Aguecheek (Tom Michael Blyth) revel, debauch and slander out of their depth, till authority reasserts itself and harmony is restored. Weaving darkly in and out of the action is the anarchic clown Feste (George Oliver) and the unrequited puritan, Malvolio (Filip Krenus).

With such a confabulatory plot and exotic setting in the mix, it is no wonder the play is also known as What You Will, or, if you like … whatever!

A comedy of errors

Tennison’s staging is innovative, incorporating effective slapstick from the zany quarters of the cast. One or two of the more salacious moments of physical comedy fall flat though. They seem gratuitous and inconsistent with the overall tone of the play.

The physicality established by a relatively young and fresh cast is largely supported by the music, sometimes suggestive of a blockbuster score. Regrettably, it is an uneven mix, shifting from evocative, atmospheric chords to the odd piano melody clashing with Feste’s songs, which he has trouble keeping in key. However, the a cappella accompanying Orsino’s monologue at the opening, If music be the food of love, is both humorous and evocative. It leaves you genuinely wanting them to reprise further into the play.

It is a rare these days to see the Bard’s works outside the major subsidized houses, as large casts are prohibitively expensive. Consequently, when Shakespeare does get performed on smaller stages, actors often play multiple roles – with care, this can be done without sacrificing suspense of disbelief.

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© Vienna’s English Theatre

In this production however, using one actor to play both Feste the fool and Sebastian the romantic lead interferes with the emotional catharsis of the play. Helen Watkinson struggles valiantly to inject the necessary climactic pathos, but can’t find supporting resonance from the unrelenting, fast-paced humor of the other cast members. It could also have been improved by not enunciating so “trippingly on the tongue,” instead relishing the text more. Twelfth Night, at the height of Shakespeare’s romantic comedies, heralds the completion of the canon, on a level with the tragedies of Hamlet, Macbeth, Othello and King Lear; Vienna’s English Theatre’s current offering is a welcome and entertaining night out.

Now through Dec 22, Vienna’s English Theatre