Twelfth Night

What You Will Gets You What You Want

Reviewed by Mary Alderson

Apparently, someone in Shakespeare’s time considered Twelfth Night a Christmas show – although there is no obvious reason why. But that’s how the name Twelfth Night came to be. It was traditionally shown on the twelfth day of Christmas, which was a time of festivity. Shakespeare had originally called this play What You Will a clever pun on his name, and a more apt title, when you consider that in the end, everyone got what they wanted.

The current production of Twelfth Night opening the 2024 season in Stratford on the Festival stage bears no resemblance to Christmas, but it has a surprise that could be considered a gift for those of us who grew up in the 1960s, and it ends in celebration. The play is set in the swinging sixties – while some are wearing fashionable dresses of the era, we also see a real-live hippie.

Like several of Shakespeare’s comedies, the plot centres on a girl dressed as a boy. The confusion we see today on the stage, must have been compounded in Elizabethan times when women weren’t allowed to act, so boys would be playing the female roles. In this case, a young man would be playing a woman, pretending to be a boy.

Twelfth Night is one of Shakespeare’s later romantic comedies. It is traditional Shakespearean style, much of it written in rhyme. There are frequent soliloquies where characters stand at centre stage and talk directly to the audience, explaining their innermost thoughts and feelings.

Viola is shipwrecked and ends up on an exotic island. She assumes her twin brother Sebastian has died at sea. She dresses as a boy, calling herself Cesario, so that she will be safe in this strange country, and goes to work as an aid to Duke Orsino. Of course, she falls in love with him, but he doesn’t know she’s a woman. He’s in love with Countess Olivia, and asks Viola to deliver his love notes to Olivia on his behalf. Olivia falls in love with the young messenger, thinking he’s a young man. In a subplot, Olivia’s uncle, Sir Toby Belch and his freeloader friend Sir Andrew Aguecheek, along with Olivia’s maid Maria, play a nasty trick on the annoying, self-righteous Malvolio.

In addition to Shakespeare’s gender switch, director Seana McKenna has pulled a couple of gender changes herself. In this production Malvolio, usually a male steward in the household is a woman, and Feste, traditionally a male jester has been changed to a female. It is these two women who steal the show. Laura Condlln, who succeeds in any role, is excellent as Malvolio, totally falling for the scam perpetrated on her, to the audience’s delight. Her appearance in the bright yellow and black pantyhose, in contrast to her serious and dour attitude, has the audience in stitches.

Similarly, Deborah Hay as Feste the fool adds fun to this play. Hay is dressed as a hippie: bell bottoms, fringe, and long, straight hair. Her witty repartee and word play adds to the laughter.

Scott Wentworth as Toby Belch and Rylan Wilkie as Andrew Aguecheek are also hilarious as they work with Sarah Dodd as Maria, who appears so prim and proper but is always ready for deception at Malvolio’s expense.

Jessica B. Hill is excellent as Viola/Cesario. In her pretence as a man, she is totally believable.  And yes, Hill as Cesario looks enough like Austin Eckert as Sebastian to be his twin brother. Vanessa Sears as Olivia is perfect in her rejection of Orsino, while falling for his messenger.

The first act, as the backstories are established, moves slowly, but then the action picks up in the second act. In the final scene, after all the deceptions are unveiled, things become quite lively with a sixties rock ‘n’ roll dance, literally ending on a high note.

Twelfth Night continues in repertory until October 26 at the Festival Theatre, Stratford. Tickets are available at the Stratford Festival at 1-800-567-1600, or check

Photo:  Upper: Scott Wentworth as Sir Toby Belch, Deborah Hay as Feste and Rylan Wilkie as Sir Andrew Aguecheek.
Lower: Vanessa Sears as Olivia, John Kirkpatrick as Priest, Austin Eckert as Sebastian and Jessica B. Hill as Viola in Twelfth Night. Photos by David Hou.

 Twelfth Night
By William Shakespeare
Directed by Seana McKenna
Performed by Laura Condlln, Vanessa Sears, Jessica B. Hill, André Sills, Sarah Dodd, Scott Wentworth, Deborah Hay, Rylan Wilkie, Austin Eckert, et al.
Festival Theatre, Stratford
May 27 to October 26, 2024
Reviewed by Mary Alderson



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