The strengths of The Australian Shakespeare Company’s production of Twelfth Night lie in how director Glenn Elston and his cast have approached the text – with one hand out in reverence, the other holding a pair of scissors. The piece has been cut in some places, cut-up and rearranged in others, all while never losing sight of telling a beautiful story at its heart.
The opening two scenes are nicely chopped up and stitched together to make a single opening scene that moves at a quicker pace than if played as they appear on the page. There’s a solid rhythm here, apt considering the music found in, and added to, the show. Some performances of Shakespeare where music features have its music or any songs reduced or removed. Here, the instinct is right to go the other way and embrace it.
Even between musical set pieces (such as Malvolio’s torment, a cruel joke by way of some snake dancing Southern church revival), we have Feste (Mark Dickinson) strumming his guitar, a gentle refrain keeping things connected. To be sure, the musical prelude – a reworking of The 12 Days of Christmas – wasn’t nearly as successful as the number that opened the 2nd half, but it was fine enough.
For the most part, the added touches were amusing. Some jokes didn’t quite work (“Donald Trump Voter.”), but it was less about their quality than it was just about them being unnecessary since the humour was working fine as it was. For example, when Malvolio (Hugh Sexton) is reading the fake letter from his mistress, he stops. Knees pressed together. A panicked look to the audience.
Then, what follows is a long departure from Hugh’s great work (along with that of his co-stars milling around as they gull him) to indulge in a literal scene of toilet humour that, while certainly funny, acts like an anchor slowing the momentum. Elsewhere, the craft and skill that the cast show is how they bring out the humour without it hindering a scene’s pace, so this was a strange wee (pun not intended) departure.
While the above may seem like a lot of word count to spend on niggles, niggles is all you get from this lot – because this was a wonderful show, built around an engine of brilliant performances.
Mark Dickinson was great as Feste, moving through scenes with a certain level of irreverence, but also grounded, observing with a wry or wise eye like Lear’s Fool. Sir Toby and Sir Andrew were portrayed in excellent inebriated fashion by Kevin Hopkins and Anthony Rive respectively. Claire Nicholls was fantastic as Maria, her interplay with Sir Toby one of the highlights.
With a stiff physicality and monotone voice, Syd Zygier in the role as Olivia started the play resembling Natalie Portman from the Star Wars prequels. However, you quickly realise this is by design, her character growing well in voice and presence as the story progressed. Lousie Fitzhardinge’s Fabian was an unexpected delight and stood out in good counterpoint to Maria, Sir Toby, and Sir Andrew. Bryony Hindley was a little quiet at first as Antonia, but found her voice by the time she found a sword in her hand and never lost it after.
Good backup was provided by Patrick Schnur as the Officer and James Coley as one of the lost twins, Sebastian. His twin sister, Viola, was played superbly by Elizabeth Brennan, under a beautiful Bowie-esque, Ziggy Stardust-ish lightning bolt complete with orange mullet. She worked well with Charlie Sturgeon who did well as Duke Orsino to not come across as a bore, even as he wrestled with the character’s overwrought lovesick laments.
I worried early on, if the heavy use of technology to nullify much of the consequences of performing outdoors necessitated the show being performed outside to begin with. And then you hear that language. The sunlight falls away, the performances and the music and the storytelling sweep you up and sometime later on, typing this sentence, you marvel at how it was ever something to worry about at all. This was great theatre, pretty much perfect in its outdoor setting at the Royal Botanical Gardens. A grand tradition!
Royal Botanic Gardens Melbourne – Enter through Observatory Gate on Birdwood Avenue
Performance: Saturday 14 January 2017
Season continues to 4 March 2017
Information and Bookings: www.shakespeareaustralia.com.au
Image: Cast of Twelfth Night – courtesy of Australian Shakespeare Company
Review: David Collins