By: Angela Guardiani
Shakespeare BASH'd is a theatre company with one mission – to bring the Bard to bars.
I'm exaggerating, of course, but not by much. BASH'd produces early modern English dramas in some of Toronto's most iconic pubs (The Imperial and the Victory Cafe are some recent venues), bringing a sense of raucous, booze-fueled fun to a cultural experience that – for many of us – has become uncomfortably highfalutin'. In fact, the experience of a BASH'd Shakespeare play sounds very much like what it must have been like for those plays' original audiences. The company does a lot with a little, relying on the power of the texts rather than over-the-top production values to make an emotional connection with their viewers.
Recently, I was lucky enough to have a long conversation with James Wallis, co-artistic director of Shakespeare BASH'd and director of their latest production. Wallis and the rest of the company are staging a 1920s Parisian Twelfth Night at the Monarch Tavern later this month and it sounds like it's going to be a riot. Here's a little bit of what we can expect from this production.
One of the first things that jumped out at me as I was reading the promotional materials for this production is the setting. If you're not familiar with Twelfth Night, it takes place in “Illyria” - a location that has only the slightest acquaintance with reality, and putting it into the very real time and place of post-WWI Paris is a big change. Wallis points out that with his company, the venue informs the play, and as the Monarch Tavern dates back to the 1920s it seemed an obvious choice. It's also a natural fit for the play itself. “Twelfth Night begins in mourning,” says Wallis (and that's not a spoiler – literally in the first minutes of the play we meet Viola, in shock at having barely survived the shipwreck that took her twin brother.) “The play moves out of mourning into ecstasy, and that parallels 1920s Europe – everyone was just astounded to be alive.” The explosion of all kinds of creative art from that time make their way into this production too in the form of original music by Franziska Beeler. Wallis wouldn't reveal too much about it, but he described the music as being inspired by Kurt Weil, jazz, and cabaret. The music is worked right into the fabric of the production – the very first lines are, “If music be the food of love, play on . . .”
Wallis' enthusiasm for the play is clear throughout our conversation. “There's a mystery and an ambiguity about it that is almost magical,” he said, noting the powerful themes of love and madness that permeate it. Many characters speak of “imaginative madness”, the same creative fire that drove the poets, musicians, and artists of 1920s Paris. Even the ending of the play defies a neat fairy-tale conclusion. “There is so much left unsaid at the end, and we really wonder what will happen to these characters once the play is over.”
Of course, that's not to say that the play isn't funny – it is, first and last, a comedy. But I found myself particularly drawn to Wallis' description of it as being rooted in something more than just music and laughs and trickery. “Twelfth Night is about finding love, finding your other,” he says. “It speaks to the sacrifice that love takes, of acceptance of what fortune brings you, and it's about building a community based on love – something we have to strive to achieve.”
It's a tall order, but one that comes more easily with a drink in hand.
Twelfth Night plays from January 31st to February 5th at the Monarch Tavern, 12 Clinton Street. Tickets are $19 and are available at shakespearebashd.com.