***** stars

By Sue-Anne Hess

Honestly, I was hoping they’d cancel.

It had been raining constantly for 24 hours, and the idea of sitting outside in the damp, amidst the mosquitoes and the bats was far from appealing. But, as they say, “the show must go on!” So we braved the elements, rugged up with our blankets and raincoats, and went out to “enjoy” an evening in the park.

It was the right choice.

Glenn Elston’s extraordinarily witty adaption of Shakespeare’s classic Twelfth Night can only be described as the cream of outdoor summer theatre. Set amidst the backdrop of the Botanic Gardens, away from the trams and the mobile phones, the audience is invited into a space where the woes of modern life can be forgotten, and the glory of The Bard can be revisited once more.

Plot summaries for Shakespeare comedies are notoriously difficult to encapsulate in a few words, and that’s okay, because it hardly matters. This guy loves this girl, who loves the other guy, who is actually a girl, who doesn’t love that guy… There’s a fool, there’s a buffoon, there’s a shipwreck (and yes, we found Nemo). You get the idea. It’s merry mischief, adventure, mistaken identities and romance. And this is why we love it.

Yes, the set was fantastic. The costumes were too. All of the visual elements were reference to seventeenth century nobility, blended with modern-day references; a high-viz vest, a keg, and a gorgeous evening gown. By contrast, the makeup was slightly kooky with blue and white face paint on many of the cast. I didn’t understand it, but it somehow made space for the absurd. The sound and sound effects were also seamless – quite an accomplishment when you consider the outdoor setting. The show included a number of short, simple musical numbers that kept the mood upbeat and jovial, not unlike a drinking party at the local pub! Considering that this was not a musical, the vocal performances were solid, and in this light, a couple of the backing tracks seemed unnecessary.

Beyond all of the ornamentations, the heart of Shakespeare has always been the dialogue which ebbs and flows with a rhythm that is purely magical. Nonetheless, it takes a well-studied and thoughtful cast to be able to present it with such outstanding precision and timing, while still making it appear effortless. Shakespearean language can be challenging, and I will confess to being a bit lost as to exactly what was being said at a couple of points. Yet the performance of it – the acting, the movement, the visual humor, the tone, and expression – all of these elements kept us fully informed of the direction and development of the plot.

While the entire cast were exceptional, two of the players were particularly impressive. First, Elizabeth Brennan, whose brilliant delivery of Cesario/Viola, was as awkwardly naive as it was hilarious. Her ability to play the heart and mind of two-characters-in-one was utterly engaging, with double-meanings at every turn. In addition, the frivolity factor was championed by the performance of veteran Kevin Hopkins, who played the lovable drunken uncle, Sir Toby. His sharp wit and willingness to take any opportunity for improv kept the audience in stitches.

If there was any criticism to be made (and this is a stretch) it is that the remainder of the cast seemed hesitant about crowd participation, and missed opportunities to get us involved (whether scripted or otherwise). While there is surely a risk involved in this type of performance spontaneity, it is often the deft responsiveness of the actors that will decide the difference between a great show and an incredible show.

Undoubtedly, the Australian Shakespeare Company knows how to put on a decent Shakespeare play (I guess it goes with the territory). Despite an uncharacteristically chilly night, this band of thirteen fools rollicked their way through the Twelfth Night with the careless playfulness of a bunch of school kids on the first day of holidays. Even with the helicopters overhead, the (somewhat loud) music coming from the Observatory nearby (and yes, there was a little more rain), their polish and performance were a delicious treat for a summers’ night outdoors.

Twelfth Night is not to be missed… If you’ve seen it before, go again.

This one is an all-out 5 star!