Cabaret adds bells and whistles to ‘Twelfth Night’

Cast of the Twelfth Night with director Barbara Basel, far right. Picture: Christine Kaye

Barbara Basel, of Plumstead, has taught, acted in and directed theatre for over 50 years, and now she is bringing her own interpretation of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night to the Masque Theatre for a limited run from Wednesday July 5 to Saturday July 15.

This is her 10th production at the theatre since 2011, having previously directed The Crucible, Road to Mecca, and The Importance of Being Earnest, among others. Still, she says it’s overwhelming directing a Shakespearian play.

“I really am very interested in Shakespeare. He is one of the greatest writers. Particularly because he has this tremendous insight into human nature. I don’t think we change; we still have the same feelings and emotions. This is what he writes about in his plays.

“The great thing about Shakespeare is that you can put his plays in any environment or period you like, and it is still relevant because he deals with human emotions more than anything else.”

The production is set during 1920s Germany’s Weimar Republic, and instead of classic palaces, audiences will get cabaret nightclubs. The theme draws on freedom and chaos from the traditional festival of the twelfth night of Christmas.

Queen Elizabeth I commissioned Shakespeare to produce something entertaining for the Twelfth Night Festival. The Twelfth Night, observed by some Christian denominations, is celebrated on January 5, marking the final night of the Christmas season.

“After that very strict religious period, it was more relaxed. People had a chance to have a big party on Twelfth Night. And it was one time that the lower echelons of society had the opportunity to mock their seniors. Which didn’t happen very often. When I looked for a similar modern situation, I remembered a book I once read about the Weimar Republic and what it was all about. The similarities seemed very great between the two periods,” says Ms Basel.

Germany of the 1920s was characterised by the cabaret era, she says. “So the play’s set represents a nightclub and all of the cast are dressed in evening dress, and we are having some tango dancers to set the mood for this era.”

The plot also makes a case for this topsy-turvy world, which is represented in both the Twelfth Night and the Weimar Republic, Ms Basel says.

After a shipwreck separates her from her twin brother, Viola washes ashore alone. “In those days, maybe even today, it was quite difficult for a woman to survive on her own. She decides to impersonate a man and gets the role as a companion to Duke Orsino, who she falls in love with.”

Impersonating a man gives her unbound freedom to move around in society as she pleases, Ms Basel explains, but she’s limited in that her love is not returned by the Duke who is still under the impression she is his male companion, Cesario. Instead, the Duke has affections for a wealthy heiress, Olivia.

The play promises a cross-dressing love triangle, a wise-cracking fool, drunken shenanigans and a pair of yellow cross-gartered stockings.