By matter of name, Twelfth Night was originally intended as a festive treat for the end of the Christmas season, but this stunning production by the MTC feels like the perfect way to kick off a time of good tidings with its musical merriment and delightful cast.
For those not familiar with this arguably most accessible of Shakespeare’s comedies, it tells the tale of twins Viola (Esther Hannaford) and Sebastian (Caleb Alloway), shipwrecked and separated off the coast of Illyria. Viola is saved by the ship’s captain (Roderick Cairns) and presumes Sebastian dead. In order to survive in this new land she disguises herself as a young man – and as a musician in this production – working in the Court of Duke Orsino (Lachlan Woods). Orsino is lovesick for the affections of the countess Olivia (Christie Whelan Browne), but she refuses to see him as she is currently in the midst of seven years of mourning over the deaths of both her father and brother.
Orsino devises to have Viola – or rather her alter-ego ‘Cesario’ – act as an intermediary to get his message through to Olivia, but the plan backfires when the countess falls in love with ‘Cesario’ against her own better judgement and Viola secretly falls in love with Orsino. Of course this leaves a love triangle formed, ready for misdirected affections and stumbling escapes to ensue between the trio. Knowing Whelan Browne and Hannaford as stars of Melbourne’s music theatre and good friends in such an amusingly awkward set up, adds extra mirth to the presentation. The pair are clearly having a wonderful time on stage, as are all of the cast, intensifying the enjoyment for all. Meanwhile Woods’ marvellous interpretation of Orsino as ostentatiously love struck over Olivia and blissfully unaware of how much he is enflaming Viola’s affections is a real treat.
As is often the case with Shakespeare, there is a comic subplot. In this instance it involves Olivia’s bacchanalian uncle Sir Toby Belch (Richard Piper) and ridiculous fop Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Frank Woodley) conspiring to make her imperious steward Malvolio (Russell Dykstra) think that she is in fact in love with him. With assistance from Olivia’s maidservant Maria (Tamsin Carroll), who forges her mistress’ handwriting to make him undertake some outrageous sartorial choices, they manage to have him professed insane. Dykstra is a brilliant comic foil and fearless performer, making Malvolio’s arrogant stupidity and his subsequent downfall blissful to relish.
Piper, Woodley and Carroll are all on top form here, under the guidance of Director supremo Simon Phillips, they’re in perfect comedic harmony. Embodying the opposite of melancholy, Piper’s Sir Toby instantly transforms his niece’s household from one of sobriety to one of raucous festivity. Sir Andrew Aguecheek is a bumbling, dim-witted dandy who is foolishly incited into duelling Cesario, so it seems perfect casting to have the rubbery-limbed Woodley make the most of illustrating the silly man’s foibles. Phillips has clearly left Woodley to add his own unique brand of physical comedy to the role and it pays side-splitting dividends. It could risk getting too big and scene stealing, but it’s currently skirting the right edge of hilarity to deliciously balance the humour. Fresh from the West End, Carroll too appears to be having a ball on her return home, with the bouts of physical comedy afforded Maria as she conspires with Sir Toby. It’s a true pleasure to have Carroll back on a Melbourne stage and easy to see why she’s done so well for herself in the UK.
Gabriela Tylesova’s sumptuously over the top costume designs are just delicious to behold, and her gilded sketchbook set design, filled with Louis XVI style white and gold furniture, makes it feel like the Palace of Versailles. Tylesova has clearly spared no expense and from that, we’re treated to a visual feast. Nick Schlieper also lights it beautifully, allowing the boxed in stage to feel both as indoors and out.
But the ultimate delight of this production is the decision to have Kate Miller-Heidke and Keir Nuttall, fresh from last year’s success of Muriel’s Wedding for the Sydney Theatre Company, score Shakespeare’s songs. For it is the music in this production that is revelatory. Thanks no doubt to the violin included in some numbers, it feels almost Celtic in style, at once modern and classical at the same time. Simon Phillips’ brilliant choice to cast Colin Hay as Feste – Olivia’s court fool, minstrel and another assistant in Sir Toby’s wicked plan against Malvolio – to perform Miller-Heidke and Nuttall’s score is one beyond commendation. Hay’s vocal performance lifts the verse to giddying levels, and with the nature of theatre being what it is, an ephemeral experience that cannot be over-sold. Hannaford is also given a number to sing, while accompanying herself on the autoharp, creating a love song so beautiful I’m already dying to hear it again. Here’s hoping a cast recording is made, for I’m sure many will walk away from this production wanting to hear these modern interpretations of Shakespeare’s songs again. Who’d have thought? “If music be the food of love, play on”!
This is Shakespearean comedy of the highest order and a most uplifting night at the theatre. It’s the perfect way to induce Christmas merriment or what you will!
Images: Jeff Busby