La Nuit des rois
ou Ce que vous voudrez

(Twelfth Night)

Written by William Shakespeare
Translated by Normand Chaurette
Directed by Jean-Philippe Joubert

At the Grand Théâtre de Québec
Produced by Le Théâtre du Trident

A review of the performance on Sept. 27, 2011

(Cliquer pour lire la critique en français.)

NOTE: For a brief summary of the plot, characters, and themes, consult my review of Twelfth Night in a production by Britain's National Theatre.

This play is Normand Chaurette's French translation of Shakespeare's Twelfth Night. And this production by Québec's Théâtre du Trident -- fresh, smooth, energetic, and natural -- sparkles as much in Chaurette's free verse as it does in Claudia Gendreau's mirrored set or in Julie Morel's relucent costumes.

As I explain in the earlier review, this play is about the dangers of excess, the first example of which we encounter in the form of Duke Orsino's delusional love for Olivia. Jean-Sébastien Ouellette clearly understood the duke's romantic hypersensibility and the predictable, even inevitable, outcome that he be a man who's in love more with being in love than he is with his putative inamorata. Ouellette's Orsino was sympathetically thespian, a prisoner of the kind of poetic self-indulgence -- genuine but naive -- that we expect of an erudite, sulky adolescent boy. It was easy to believe this Orsino to be a young man who hadn’t grown up enough to distinguish the object of his affection from the affection itself. In contrast to the irascible Orsino I saw in London eight months ago, this one was a benevolent poet-ruler (as opposed to ruler-poet) whose tenderness made Viola’s love for him easy to appreciate, and whose restrained flamboyance set the tone of brightness this comedy needs for success.

As Viola, Klervi Thienpont actually seemed like a girl trying to impersonate a boy. Her Viola’s awkwardness was endearing, being the result of a struggle, of course, between her natural femininity and her feigned masculinity. Even though Viola is the only character in this play who doesn’t wallow in excess, Thienpont rarely put her at the mean between extremes. Rather, she played Viola alternately to the left and right such that on average, she came out in the middle. Whereas her characterization was neither bland nor immoderate, the balance in Thienpont’s Viola, as it should, functioned as a strong foil to the emotional exorbitance of the other roles.

Religious extremism is Malvolio’s sin of excess in this story. It begins as joyless abstinence from anything pleasurable but quickly leads to an opposite extreme as his all-too-human wants and needs break through the concrete of his abstemious ways. Malvolio’s new extremism, we might argue, is a rebound from his former extremism, such that what he becomes is a pathetic and self-deluded man who, despite Feste’s cruel hammering on his psyche, holds on stubbornly and fiercely to his own sanity, until he storms off stage vowing revenge against those who persecuted him. In fact, because he seems to be a sacrificial lamb at the altar of mirth, Malvolio’s role in this play may be to imply that happiness can’t be universal, because the game has a zero sum.

And herein, at least for me, was the only disappointment in this production. Kevin McCoy played Malvolio as a buffoon from start to finish. There was neither blackness in his soul nor genuineness in his manner. There was only a superficial pomposity and a false priggishness that bore no resemblance to the grimness of puritanism. He was too spiteful. Thus, the transformation we witnessed was nothing more than the removal of a mask; it had nothing to do with a change of heart. I felt neither pity nor respect for McCoy’s Malvolio behind bars, because the character had no substance. Needless to say, if making Malvolio a hollow clown was indeed intentional, then he succeeded. He was quite funny in the role. But in doing so, he made a sacrifice: not Malvolio’s happiness for the sake of the general good humor, but rather an entire personality that one can argue is the emotional linchpin of this play.

As Feste, the jester, Olivier Normand was confident, even arrogant, in his melancholy and cynicism. Normand made it difficult to tell whether Feste’s excess was in the former or in the latter, a curious uncertainty because his underlying mysteriousness took shape nevertheless. Sadness and distrust were present simultaneously in this man, but Normand -- and rightly so -- withheld information that would have dispelled the haziness and established one as the cause of the other. This Feste had come to expect darkness, though he knew there was light somewhere and that were it to shine on him, he’d revel in the warmth.

As Orsino is addicted to love itself, so Olivia is addicted to grief. Anne-Marie Olivier convinced me, however, that her Olivia was awash in anxiety. Therefore, if the difference between grief and anxiety is expectation, that is, if anxiety is what follows from the belief that a loss is temporary, then this Olivia wasn’t sure her brother had died. Even if we interpret her anxiety as a response to the questions now facing her, there remained surprisingly little grief in her deportment.

Director Joubert’s concept of this play, a set of mirrors and lights that create the illusion of twinkling and of openness, made for a dazzling image on stage, especially with the bold costumes that were designed -- or maybe hyperdesigned -- to accentuate their bearers’ roles in the story. So beautiful was it all that looking away was not an option. Nevertheless, the desired effect came at a price, in that the atmosphere felt cold and inhospitable; it was quite a paradox. I have to wonder whether Joubert was trying to tell us something more.