Gorgeous design, cunning direction and a dreamy cast combine for the pure pleasure of Twelfth Night, an early Christmas present from Melbourne Theatre Company.
As ringmaster to this festive merriment, director Simon Phillips shows a wonderfully sure hand, keeping storytelling crisp and clear. Working with a dozen devilishly talented players, Phillips brings out an abundance of physical and vocal humour, ensuring a high flow rate of laugh out loud moments.
The gender fluidity of Shakespeare’s beloved comedy proves very timely, with prescient points simply allowed to speak for themselves. Best of all, the comedy is underscored by just the right amount of heart, bringing the zesty shenanigans to a charming conclusion.
Designer extraordinaire Gabriela Tylesova, a frequent collaborator of Phillips’, lavishes the stage with her characteristically inventive, witty designs. An abundance of scenes are created with spare elegance, while costumes are luxuriously appointed.
So thick is the pea soup fog in the opening scene, that a modicum of knowledge of the scenario will be of value. The brief prologue presents the funeral of Olivia’s father and brother, before flashes of lightning see shipwrecked waif Viola wash ashore on Illyria.
Tylesova uses a light, sun kissed aesthetic to bring a sense of the Adriatic coast to exotic Illyria. On an open stage before an abstract background of swirling sky, a simple set of golden, flame-topped poles are moved about to deftly delineate space. A rear double door and a sparse smattering of furnishings are all that is needed to conjure the locations.
Tylesova’s costumes are, as ever, a wonder to behold and, presumably, a joy for the cast to wear. The lead characters are distinctly Elizabethan, corresponding to the period when Twelfth Night was first performed, with the supporting musicians something of a cross between ABBA and Lord of the Rings. Full credit to Melbourne Theatre Company’s wigs and millinery staff for their excellent contributions to the quality of the production.
A further key aspect of distinction in the sumptuous production is the terrific music of Kate Miller-Heidke and Keir Nuttall. Duke Orsino famously bids his court musicians: “If music be the food of love, play on” and play on they do, threading instantly accessible music throughout the evening. Taking their cues from sonnets in the text, Miller-Heidke and Nuttall provide music so organic it feels to have always been there.
As roving musicians, Caleb Alloway, Roderick Cairns, Anthony Harkin and Alec Steedman perform expertly, with the jewel in the crown being Colin Hay as jester Feste, who sings and accompanies himself on the lute with flair.
Revered musical theatre actress Esther Hannaford is a natural joy as Viola. In long elfin henna wig as gentleman “Cesario,” Hannaford downplays the resulting gender confusion, simply using her gift for vocal expression to bring out the full humour in the role, and endearing the role to the audience with an undercurrent of poignant vulnerability.
With a look that brings to mind Glinda wearing an Elphaba dress, Christie Whelan Browne is a sheer delight as Olivia. Drawing on her natural talent as a comedienne, Whelan Browne enhances the text with touches of modern inflection, earning plentiful laughter at the pampered countess’ mock outrage and unbridled lust.
Lachlan Woods, frequently seen in Phillips’ MTC Shakespeare productions, enjoys the plum role of Duke Orsino, a preening man-child who thrives on the pleasure of his own existence. Woods balances Orsino’s alpha male swagger with a petulant pomposity that draws a degree of sympathy and affection for the Duke’s unrequited love for Olivia.
Adopted for the past several years by the West End musical theatre stage, Tamsin Carroll makes a very welcome local appearance as Maria, not so gentle gentlewoman to Olivia.
Throwing himself into the role of incorrigible rogue Sir Toby Belch, tireless veteran Richard Piper scores laughs aplenty as the salty suitor bombasts his way about the stage.
In an inspired piece of casting, comedian Frank Woodley makes for a hilarious Sir Andrew Aguecheck, tempering his action with all manner of fiendish physical comedy that is brilliantly performed.
The spitting image of the Lego Shakespeare minifigure, Russell Dykstra revels in the simmering ill will of Malvolio, making the self-important character a pleasure to hate.
A delectable blend of comedy, music and design, Twelfth Night is a guilt-free pleasure that is highly recommended.
Twelfth Night plays at The Sumner, Southbank Theatre, Melbourne until 5 January 2018.
Photos: Jeff Busby