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Twelfth Night (Susan Elkin reviews)

Twelfth Night

William Shakespeare

Directed by Owen Horsley

Music composed and supervised by Sam Kenyon

Open Air Theatre, Regents Park

Star rating: 4

We’re in a louche 1990s-ish café near the sea – call it Illyria or “What You Will” –  where a four piece band is playing plaintively. And that’s one of many quite neat contrivances in this engaging version of Shakespeare’s gender fluid comedy about grief. There’s a lot of music in the play and here it is on stage where several accomplished actor-musos play the minor roles such as Curio and Fabian.

Director, Owen Horsley tackles head-on the blurring of sexuality in the play. The relationship between Sebastian (Andro Cowperthwaite) and Antonio (Nicholas Karimi) is there in the text in plain sight. Horsley makes it overt. This Sebastian is definitely not going to settle down to marriage with Olivia. Meanwhile Sir Toby Belch (Michael Matus – excellent) is a drag queen. And Orsino (Raphael Bushay – lots of gravitas) is uncomfortably puzzled about his feelings towards this faintly androgynous person who has joined his household.

The acting and direction is this show is glitteringly good. The text has been altered very little but this cast knows how to squeeze a nuance, innuendo or laugh out of almost every phrase. There’s none of the fashionable gabbling to make it sound chatty either. They make sure that you hear and respond to every word. Enunciation is the rule but it’s never – obviously – declamatory.

Anna Francolini’s Olivia (excessively and hilariously swathed in black lace at her first entrance – costumes by Ryan Dawson Laight) is richly compelling. She delivers every line with wit and verve, hamming it up a bit but also finding pathos and that silvery sadness the play demands. Moreover I’ve rarely seen an actor make better use of perfectly timed looks and pauses.

Evelyn Miller as Viola  is warm, charming but feisty – even as she deals with her own grief and hurt. One of the play’s synergies is that both women have lost a brother. Yes, you can understand why Olivia falls for her but equally you share Viola’s horror when she realises what’s happening. It’s exquisitely nuanced.

And so to Richard Cant’s Malvolio. Now I’ve seen many pretty good Malvolios over the years with Desmond Barrit for the RSC being one of the most memorable. Cant surpasses them all. He gets the tiresome, fussy humourless officiousness perfectly but when we see him alone in the letter scene (with the listeners behind imaginatively directed in a series of freeze tableaux) Cant shows us the character’s vulnerability and it’s painful. And then there’s the horror of the scene in which he’s confined as mad and his final exit – in which we feel real shame. So the moment of reconciliation at the very end (inspired idea) comes as a welcome and warm surprise. It is an outstanding performance.

Less successful is Julie Legrand as Feste. The conceit is that she’s the singer in the café and she sings well enough but she’s more like a cynical, weary school teacher trying to be clever than anything resembling the joker the play really needs.

Overall though, this is a refreshing, thoughtful and warmly entertaining take on an old favourite and an excellent opener for Open Air Theatre’s 2024 season. Moreover, the weather gods were smiling on press night which was a delicious “darling buds of May” sort of evening. And there’s no better venue when the weather’s right.

Author information
Susan Elkin Susan Elkin is an education journalist, author and former secondary teacher of English. She was Education and Training Editor at The Stage from 2005 - 2016
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