November 01, 1999

Cakes and Ale, Wind and Rain

Filed under: Archive,Theatre

Twelfth Night, or What You Will
William Shakespeare

State Theatre South Australia
Optima Playhouse

Reviewed by Murray Bramwell

The season is not yet over for State Theatre but with Twelfth Night Artistic Director Rodney Fisher signs off on his two year residency. Also marking twenty five years of Playhouse activity, this production not only adds a festive note, it is among the best work State has produced for a while. Certainly it is a happier excursion into Shakespeare than last year’s execrable Macbeth and we also get an opportunity to see fine performances from a number of Adelaide-based actors.

Twelfth Night is a favourite comedy despite the playwright’s laboured return to that corny old contrivance – ripped off from Plautus- of twins, separated at birth, causing all kinds of attentuated problems with mistaken identity. The fact that they are brother and sister adds cross-dressing to cross purposes as Viola, posing as Cesario, is wooed by the Countess Olivia and makes eyes at the lovelorn Duke. Fortunately the play’s pleasure rests, not in its preposterous plot, but in the episodes and set pieces which are an actor’s delight.

Dale Ferguson’s vast decor is intriguingly sombre, in grey cement plaster with a high French window, a curious collection of stacked furniture at stage left, a decorated conifer and a banquet table. In a theatrically self-referential flourish, a huge clump of curtain swoops down the OP side where it is tethered to the proscenium like a canvas plait from which various drolls, like figures in Edward Lear’s beard, hide and eavesdrop and chatter the way they used to in Laugh In.

The period and place is indeterminate – somewhere between second series Black Adder and the beginning of World War I. The set could almost suit The Seagull, the costumes range from Elizabethan velvets for Olivia to Malvolio as Edwardian butler and Feste as Bertie Wooster’s younger brother. The confusing twins, and various young attendants are given rather horrible androgynous Napoleonic tunics and baggy cream pants. But the worst look is reserved for Patrick Frost’s brace of sea captains – the first, a Titanic disaster, the other, the luckless Antonio, in leather frock coat and neck scarf, straight out of Adventure Island.

The performances are some of the best we have seen from State in quite a while. Essie Davis plays Viola with disarming freshness and understatement. By candlelight she shadows Orsino, played with weary charm by Vince Colosimo, and with blushing reticence eludes the ardour of Bronwen James’s Olivia. Steve Grieg is a lively Sebastian and Rory Walker, always reliable, is particularly astute in the duel scene.

The comedy of Belch and Aguecheek is in excellent hands with Don Barker and Paul Blackwell. Barker’s Sir Toby is hearty but not overbearing, almost the straight man to Blackwell’s endearing capering– part Daffy Duck, part Quixotic gentleman, his wispy hair and rubbery walk adding physical comedy to marvellous effect. Also important to the mix is Amanda Muggleton as Maria, a nicely judged, vibrant performance which doesn’t push for comedy but finds it all the same.

The role of Feste is a peculiar one. He is called a Clown, but is a long way from a 20th century idea of funny. Stephen Sheehan, an accomplished musician, captures Feste’s surreal wordplay and sly backchat with something like the wide-eyed innocence of a white mime. He sings also well and his turn as Sir Topaz is neatly managed.

Bille Brown’s Malvolio is more like a camp maitre’d than the peevish Puritan of the Shakespeare’s text. Brown’s stage work is crisp and virtuosic and certainly wins over the first night audience. But having started in high gear there is nowhere else to go but further over the top – so when he finally exits, vowing revenge on the whole pack of us, we shouldn’t be chortling at excess but feeling the pang of a humiliation from which none of us is exempt.

Rodney Fisher and his diligent cast have brought us a Twelfth Night with plenty of layers and shading, even if, at nearly three hours, it risks being overlong. Mention should be made of David Walters, whose lighting is subtle and often sumptuous, and Max Lyandvert, whose music, particularly for the flute, is, if not the food of love, at least a very pleasing hors d’oeuvre.

Adelaide Review, No.195, November, 1999.p.37

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