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A Thai twist on the Bard

An all-star cast deliver a generally entertaining, if a little inhibited, adaptation of Twelfth Night

Who wouldn't be excited when some of Thailand's greatest living comedic actors gather for a Shakespeare romp? And even though the vivacious and capable cast of Dreambox's Thai-language production of Twelfth Night (or as it's alternatively known, What You Will), deliver a generally entertaining show, the play at times suffers from its own inhibition and faithfulness to the Bard's text.

A scene from Twelfth Night. Photo courtesy of Dreambox

Setting the play in the Elizabethan era is not the problem here, but it's the focus that's strong on plot and weak on pacing, nuance and interpretation. Director Suwandee Jakravoravudh, the latest recipient of a Silpathorn Award, has had many successes with comedies and has worked with some of these actors for decades, but she takes frustratingly few liberties with the play. The strongest statement of this production seems to be that it's a Shakespeare play.

Suwandee sometimes struggles with balance. In the scenes that call for rambunctiousness and ribaldry, the result is timid. But in the scene where Malvolio (a very funny and sympathetic Tamakorn Jakravoravudh) reads what he believes to be a love letter from Olivia as his adversaries look on in vindictive delight, the choreography could have been more considered and convincing.

And just when you think the director has something to say about gender by casting a woman (Deejai Deedeedee) to play Feste and by suggesting that Antonio (Wayne Faulconer) harbours romantic feelings for Sebastian (Jittacoop Soontornsilchai), she trails off instead of completing the sentence.

Cross-gender casting is becoming less unusual in 21st-century Shakespeare productions. Early this year, the UK's National Theatre's production of Twelfth Night by Simon Godwin created a buzz for casting actress Tamsin Greig in the role of Malvolio. I didn't see the production, but the promotional materials and the reviews show that this new interpretation of Malvolio was the main attraction. Greig was not a woman playing a male role. She was an actress playing a present-day puritanical woman called Malvolia.

When it comes to gender identity, even Trevor Nunn's 1996 far-from-radical film adaptation treats the issue with more depth and curiosity than the Dreambox production. In the film, we see Viola, a 19th-century woman, free herself from the confines of the corset only to be constricted again by a piece of cloth that tightly binds her breasts. Nunn shows Viola struggling to perform activities meant only for men at the time, like riding the horse astride and sword-fighting. Pretending to be a man in the 19th century didn't make things easier for women one bit.

For me, Feste is the safest and least interesting choice for cross-gender casting, as female Feste adds nothing new to the play. It is an extremely difficult role, however, and Deejai strikes the right balance between heart and humour, foolish and wise. Antonio's crush on Sebastian is treated as a minor comedic device and later abandoned in the mistaken-identity melee. The superficiality of these choices -- small they may be -- makes the play all the more infuriating.

What Suwandee understands, though, is what tickles the Thai audience. And even though the scene in the garden with Malvolio and the letter is not sharply choreographed or executed, that was when the play at last cut loose from its initial inhibition. It was the first scene that made the entire audience laugh and the first moment the play truly came alive for me. There were a few genuinely funny scenes that followed, the most successful being the duel between Cesario/Viola (Nisachon Siothaisong) and Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Kor Kamolpattana).

The cast is undoubtedly full of talent. Veteran actor Yanee Tramote is pitch-perfect as the cunning drunk Sir Toby Belch. Daran Thitakawin's Olivia could use a little more gravitas, but the actress is so funny and commanding that it's easy to forgive her over-the-top exuberance.

But two of my favourite comedic actors growing up, Kanokwan Buranont and Wasant Uttamayothin, are sorely underused. Kanokwan is more than capable of playing a complex part, but the character of Maria here is treated like a forgettable supporting role. And Fabian is too small a role for Wasant, who awkwardly overcompensates for the insignificance of his part every chance he gets.

Since this is a gender-bending play, why not cast Wasant -- an openly gay actor who's been pigeonholed his entire career -- as Sir Andrew Aguecheek or Malvolio?

A semblance of balance and consistency in the play can be found in Daraka Wongsiri's translation, which retains Shakespeare's witty and poetic quality and manages to be accessible for the present-day audience at the same time.

Suwandee didn't neglect the gentler side of the play. And the atmosphere created by the music, the lighting and set design is one of romance and delicate beauty. Although Rittirong Jiwakanont's costumes are plush and at times comical, most notably those of Olivia, his set design -- comprising of only three two-level structures that are rearranged to form rooms, hallways and courtyards -- is beautiful in its simplicity and minimalism.

Music plays a major role in this production. And Kaiwan Kulawatnotai's compositions are most memorable when they are melancholic. Those sweet and lonesome flute solos will stay with you long after the play is over.

Twelfth Night, or What You Will, is on every Saturday and Sunday at 2pm and 7.30pm on Saturdays and 2pm on Sundays, until Sept 24. Tickets are 1,300 and 1,500 baht. Visit dreambox.co.th for reservations. The play is in Thai with no surtitles.

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