A hotly relevant play about gender bending? Try this one by Shakespeare

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This wrap of shows around Melbourne includes Bell Shakespeare’s touring production of Twelfth Night and a cathartic gig by Tems at Forum Theatre.

Twelfth Night ★★★★
Bell Shakespeare, Monash Performing Arts Centre, October 3

Twelfth Night is an evergreen gender bender; Bell Shakespeare productions over the decades have felt unusually attuned to the zeitgeist. John Bell himself blazed a trail for a distinctively Australian style of Shakespearean performance, skewering histrionic pretension as the haughtiest of Malvolios, while director Lee Lewis took a graver and gentler approach to the play, transforming it into a memento mori, a quietly cathartic comedy risen from the ashes of the Black Saturday bushfires.

The latest production of Twelfth Night by Bell Shakespeare offers a fresh and enjoyable interpretation.Credit: Brett Boardman

This latest national tour offers a fresh and enjoyable interpretation, with cross-gendered casting that leans into the 21st-century focus on gender and sexuality, showing just how mutable and diverse the experience of those things can be.

Director Heather Fairbairn knows this isn’t a radical idea. Shakespeare has a protean, sometimes contradictory perspective – he entangles elements of gender suspender, defender, extender and upender – and Fairbairn reaches back into history, seeking a contemporary dramaturgical analogue to the playful artifice of Elizabethan performance.

Here, shipwrecked fraternal twins Viola and Sebastian are gender-flipped to disorienting effect. Isabel Burton first appears as Viola, but when she cross-dresses as a boy, Alfie Gledhill takes over, with Burton reverting to the role of Sebastian. The romantic confusions that follow are a knot too queer to untie.

The design of Twelfth Night might be static in the first half but blossoms in the second.Credit: Brett Boardman

It’s no coincidence that the names of their paramours, Orsino and Olivia, begin with “O”. Garth Holcombe and Ursula Mills play them as empty, comically infatuated vessels, leaving the balance of interest and sympathy in the shenanigans of their subordinates.

Following in the footsteps of Tamsin Greig (who first played Malvolia as a woman for the National Theatre in London), Griffiths gives an extraordinary performance. She’s a prim stickler, a lesbian appointed to serve a mistress who has literally abjured the company of men.

Gendered violence infects the confrontation with Sir Toby (Keith Agius), who drunkenly gropes Malvolia, leading her to snap at the servant Maria (Amy Hack). The sharp cascade of abuse sparks a vengeful prank – a betrayal worse for the absence of a love (the courtship between Maria and Sir Toby has been excised) to explain it, and the abject cruelty of Malvolia’s fate stops the comedy in its tracks.

Though emphatic about the extent of Sir Toby’s alcoholism and disorder, the male clowning still entertains. A kilted Agius is as charming as he is alarming, and Mike Howlett brings a precise and likeable haplessness to the follies of Sir Andrew.

Another drawcard is Sarah Blasko’s music. Her songs achieve a haunting and ethereal melancholy. They’re sung in an exquisite, almost epicene register by Tomas Kantor, whose vampy, cabaret-style Feste seems to hover charismatically between feminine and masculine worlds.

The design might be static in the first half but blossoms in the second, and the eye doesn’t need constant distraction in the presence of such a clever and imaginative engagement with the text.
Reviewed by Cameron Woodhead

Twelfth Night is touring to Geelong Arts Centre, Oct 5-7; Canberra Theatre Centre, Oct 13-21; Sydney Opera House, Oct 24-Nov 19.

Tems ★★★★
Forum Theatre, October 3

Tems struts beneath orange flashing lights. The Nigerian R&B star is performing live at the Forum as part of her debut Australian tour.

Tems performs at the Forum.Credit: Martin Philbey

She loops around her bouncing back-up dancers, as her white scarf tornados around her. “I said five in the morning, wake up to fight for my earnings.” Raising one hand in the air, she sings, “I really need, I really need time now, I really need, I need a free mind now.”

Tems’ loyal fans haven’t stopped swaying to the gently ebbing groove, hanging on her every word. They call out to her, shouting, “The Queen of Afrobeats!” – a Nigerian music genre that brings west African music together with American funk, jazz and soul.

In February, the 28-year-old musician picked up her first Grammy Award and has collaborated with the likes of Drake, Rihanna and Beyoncé.

Tems’ performance was fierce, nostalgic and warm.Credit: Martin Philbey

On stage, west African drum rhythms underscore her fierce presence while her nostalgic and warm R&B chords imbue the room with a deep sense of soul.

In interviews, Tems says her debut EP Broken Ears was a response to toxic relationships and depression. In concert, she lays her broken feelings bare in tones that aren’t alarming but are accessible. As the crowd lose themselves in dance, healing by way of sharing in the emotional soundscape becomes something really cathartic.

Towards the close of the performance, the beat for Tems’ hit track Essence drops. “I feel it comin’, time is of the essence, I tried to teach you, but I need some lessons.”

The dancers slowly drift backwards, and the musicians strip their sound to a clap from the cymbal, giving Tems a moment to speak for herself. She cries, “You don’t need no other body, you don’t need no other body, you don’t need no other body!”
Reviewed by Mahmood Fazal

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