Arts / Taking the Bard into some gender bending

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Lexi Sekuless does some gender bending in “Twelfth Night”… “the audience plays along with it and willingly suspends its disbelief,” says director Christopher Stollery. Photo: Esk Photography

“HEY, ho, the wind and the rain” goes the refrain of Feste’s famous song in Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night”, about to be seen in the second edition of “Shakespeare by the Lakes” – or “Lakespeare II”, as it is being branded.

Director and Shakespearean actor Christopher Stollery will be hoping that the equally famous line in the song: “For the rain it raineth every day,” will not come true during the company’s series of free shows running by Lakes Tuggeranong and Burley Griffin.

“Lakespeare II” will actually begin inland, at Lanyon Homestead on Friday, February 15, to a ticketed audience, giving the cast a chance to test their outdoor performance skills, for the vagaries of the climate being what they are, anything could happen.

“CityNews” caught up with Stollery on a break from rehearsals at an office in Tuggeranong and found that acting, not weather, was on his mind, although his London-trained Australian costume designer Fiona Hopkins, whom he praises for “how she looks at costuming – more into Vivienne Westwood than naturalism”, is certainly taking into consideration the February heat factor.

“But most of my concentration is on motivating the actors to deliver this play with as much direction and clarity as possible,” he says.

“At the heart of ‘Twelfth Night’ is the matter of how insane loves makes us all… for however we try to impose control, as Cupid’s shaft flies, people do stupid things for love.”

Love makes the respected Duke Orsino (Duncan Driver) mad, the frigid Lady Olivia (Ylaria Rogers) frenzied for a boy who is really a girl in disguise, and the canny sea captain Antonio loose with his money – most of the principals are on the edge of insanity for most of the play.

All the characters are clearly delineated, with the eccentric secondary figures such as Sir Toby Belch (P J Williams), Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Cameron Thomas), Malvolio (Christopher Samuel Carroll) and Feste the Clown (Lloyd Allison-Young) providing roles to die for.

As for the gender bending in “Twelfth Night”, it is something the audience simply has to play along with, says Stollery. It is his personal suspicion that Shakespeare had a couple of identical twins in his company, since this motif pops up in other plays, but the likeness of twins Viola and Sebastian, played respectively by the not-very-similar Sekuless and Joel Hutchings, will be suggested by a painted moustache – “the audience plays along with it and willingly suspends its disbelief.”

But he’s not about to buy into the bold claim by management that this is the English language’s first “non-gender-specific trans comedy”.

As a director Stollery is much more excited by the way the outdoor location allows the possibility of give and take between the actors and audience, and he will be encouraging that.

“Twelfth Night” by the lake… Ylaria Rogers, left, Lexi Sekuless and Duncan Driver. Photo: Esk Photography

Stollery cut his teeth directing for Bell Shakespeare’s schools’ company. His 15-year history with the company was prefaced by a role in “Cymbeline” when John Bell directed him at NIDA, followed by the offer to play Hamlet in BSC’s second year. In all, he acted in 19 productions for the company, including the preposterous “Comedy of Errors” (more identical twins) which they took on a coals-to-Newcastle tour to England.

While he was performing with the Sydney Theatre Company’s “Gross und Klein” in London, he met Sekuless, who was there studying at the Central School of Speech and Drama. They had lunch together, realised they had the same take on theatre and got in touch back in Australia, by which time Sekuless was artistic director of “Lakespeare”.

Last year‘s play, “Much Ado About Nothing”, though it played to crowds of 4230, was directed by its architects Sekuless and Duncan Driver, who also played the leads Beatrice and Benedick but it had become clear that, as Stollery says, “really, you need an outside eye”, so he agreed to come on board.

He was impressed by the local actors who turned up at the audition. He knew some of them, such as PJ Williams and Lloyd Allison-Young, and considered them receptive to his views that Shakespeare is best done with “a pretty out-there sort of style” combined with strong “inner” performances.

Literary master Shakespeare may have been, says Stollery, but first and foremost he wrote his plays for theatres where the heavens often opened on to shows.

“Shakespeare by the Lakes II”, “Twelfth Night” in four Canberra locations: ticketed performance, Lanyon Homestead, 6.30pm, February 15, then free performances at:  Tuggeranong Town Park, 6pm, February 21 and 22; Glebe Park, noon and 6pm, February 23; and Patrick White Lawns, National Library, 4.30pm, February 24. Book at

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Helen Musa
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