Theatre at UBC opens its new season with a production of Twelfth Night that not only sees Mardi Gras as its backdrop, but one that plays with both gender and sexuality.
Beyond his contemporary New Orleans setting, director Stephen Heatley finds himself exploring gender through both necessity and design.
“This play was chosen to support the needs of the graduating class of our BFA in acting,” he says. “We have eight women and five men and trying to come up with a play that fits this particular demographic is very challenging.”
Looking for opportunities to experiment with potential gender-bending of roles given the make-up of the cast, Heatley decided that Twelfth Night could be done effectively without warping it beyond recognition.
“There is an arguably homoerotic interest in the play of Antonio for Sebastian, so we have just exchanged the same-sex interest to Malvolia for Olivia,” he says of the plot that overflows with mistaken identities, cross-dressing, mischief and unrequited love. “Since we have set the play in contemporary times, the idea of Malvolia imagining herself married to Olivia is not entirely out of the question. And the interest of Antonia for Sebastian makes for some wonderfully awkward moments through the play.”
Given that the evolving sexuality of Malvolia is part of the gender-bend, Heatley goes one step further in exploring the sexuality where the steward Malvolia, played by a woman in this production, is attracted to the mistress.
“It provides a great opportunity for a wonderfully sexy costume when she arrives in yellow stockings and cross-gartered, not just ridiculous like most renderings of Malvolio,” he explains. “And the character is constrained, some might say repressed, and the ability to express her sexual interest seems completely natural given the prank that is being played on her.”
As for any worry that audiences will be alienated by his gender bend and sexual exploration, Heatley answers potential critics by the quality of the Bard’s work.
“Some people won’t like us playing around with it, but I am convinced that Shakespeare is such an excellent playwright that we will want to continue to experience and re-envision his plays forever,” he says. “No one knows how they were done originally anyway and I want to make sure we are producing Twelfth Night for an audience in 2014 that is comprised mainly of university students who will be delighted if we can make the play come off the page in an animated, fun, rollicking and sexy manner.”
Defying anyone to tell him that there is a particular “way” in which to direct Shakespeare, Heatley is convinced that it is in “this open-hearted flexibility that keeps directors coming back to these works year after year, century after century”.
Twelfth Night plays the Frederic Wood Theatre (6354 Crescent Rd, UBC) September 25 – October 11. Visit http://theatrefilm.ubc.ca for tickets and information.
(Photo credit: Tim Matheson)