Review: Twelfth Night (or What You Will)

Sun and Moon Theatre’s fantastic production of Twelfth Night: A display of the importance of retaining hope and laughter in the darkest of times

From the offset, this production of Twelfth Night is poignant like few others. A beautifully performed combination of war-time tunes and Christmas classics introduce the play, but Viola sits in a chair alone and crying. Her arrival in Illyria is innovatively presented through a silent-film on the screen behind her, and her overwhelming grief at this time of family festivities is heart-breaking.

Immediately, this relocation of the play to Christmas 1917 interweaves moments of tragedy and loss amidst the joys of a comedy, a bold move which gives this Twelfth Night an emotive, and powerfully human, edge. The directors’ exquisite eye for detail and the investment into every character prove the aptness of the setting, developing on themes of distraction in times of loss which are essential to the original text.

These elements of tragedy, however, are perfectly balanced with fanciful and hilarious scenes which distract both the characters and audience from the presence of war. Feste’s musical interludes and Sir Toby’s drunken antics are delightfully entertaining, and Malvolio’s cross-gartered yellow stockings are always a humorous highlight. When Viola pulls a sock out of her trousers in sheer exasperation, we are forced to see the humour in this chaotic life of disguise and love triangles.

The development and nuances of the characters in relation to the war setting were at the heart of making this production so moving and engaging. Emerson Pike, for instance, plays a fantastic Orsino, tormented by love sickness and melancholy. When the clock strikes midnight on Christmas Day, we see a stoic Duke break down into tears, as the injuries of the war and the unrequited nature of his love for Olivia forbid him any hope in such a painful, war-torn setting.




Pike also multi-roles as Sir Toby, a joyful drunkard who prioritises mocking Malvolio and indulging in festive fun. It must be said, the classic scene in which Malvolio is deceived by a false letter was amazing; the “hiding” of the three men behind the Christmas tree and their incessant buffoonery was so amusing that I did cry with laughter. For a moment, Sir Toby’s foolishness allow both the audience and characters to forget the external situation of war. But that reality is ever present; between jovialities we witness Sir Toby lose a loved one on the front line, and now his actions take on new meaning – as desperate attempts to distract himself from his grief.

Melissa Barrett excels in the part of Viola, presenting the courage of a young woman devastated by loss but determined to survive. While her slightly oversized coat insinuates Viola is still growing into her role of ‘Cesario’, her confident wit around Olivia and profound exclamations to Orsino, prove her a defiant woman unafraid to take risks. Barrett’s intensity of expression excellently conveys the strife of a brave woman desperately trying to hide herself both physically and emotionally, and the portrayal of her public stoicism yet private sorrow perfectly captures the part.

David Johnson does an astounding job of alternating between the upbeat, hilarious role of Sir Andrew, and the noble, serious Sebastian. His intense and solemn presentation of the separated twin who deep-down grieves for his beloved sister, cleverly juxtapose Sir Andrew’s frivolous and ridiculous attempts to win Olivia’s love. Johnson’s performance exemplifies this company’s in-depth focus on each of their characters, which ultimately bring the production to life.



The audience is acutely aware of the thought given to each character in this renovated setting, whether it be by Feste’s pinning of a white feather to his coat – rebranding this symbol of cowardice into a proud one of peace – or the frequently noticed, treasured photos of loved ones. You can tell, through the attention to detail, that Sun and Moon Theatre Company know how to perfectly relocate Shakespearean plays to different eras.

And yet, while fantastic at placing the play to World War One, many of these themes resonate to the present day. Acknowledging that the political and social upheaval of 2016 were part of the inspiration to set Twelfth Night during this era, Sun and Moon Theatre Company play upon the human need for distraction and hope during times of uncertainty.

Additionally, what struck me about their performance was the unique engagement with the audience. This isn’t a company afraid to look us in the eye, to plead with us for advice or reassurance. Viola’s “I left no ring with her” speech demonstrates the private connection between character and audience, as Barrett speaks to – rather than at – us. Even the cosiness of the small theatre and intimacy of the staging create a warm atmosphere which immerses us in the world of Illyria.

Sun and Moon Theatre overall present a profoundly human production, which is as thoroughly delightful as it is moving. It screams Shakespeare (figuratively speaking) in its innovation, it’s intertwining of tragedy in comedy, and the real human depth within the characters which hooks the audience’s attention and empathy. These characters may not be fighting on the front-line but are dealing with their own hardships, desperately trying to distract themselves from their losses. Yet, through the pleasures of music, humour, and love, their wonderful reunion at the end of the play reassures the audience of the hopeful light at the end of any dark tunnel.


Eleanor-Rose Gordon 



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