sun 16/06/2024

Twelfth Night, Regent's Park Open Air Theatre review - burlesque overwhelms the darker notes in this mixed revival | reviews, news & interviews

Twelfth Night, Regent's Park Open Air Theatre review - burlesque overwhelms the darker notes in this mixed revival

Twelfth Night, Regent's Park Open Air Theatre review - burlesque overwhelms the darker notes in this mixed revival

Queer themes and music take centre stage in a café setting

Feste (Julie Legrand) listens to Olivia (Anna Francolini) and the band in the queer caféRichard Lakos

In Shakespeare's day theatre was regarded as "wanton" by those of a Puritan disposition who feared boys dressed as girls could engender wicked thoughts of same-sex love in players and audience. But such ideas are, of course, part of the story, especially in comedies such as As You Like It and Twelfth Night. Director Owen Horsley here celebrates the queerness rather than leaving it to the perception of the audience.

Evelyn Miller as ViolaThere are pluses and minuses to this idea. The action now takes place in a queer café, designed by Basia Bińkowska and named for the diva who owns it, Olivia, and bearing her name in gigantic neon letters. Olivia, played with terrific gusto by Anna Francolini, is the star  in both her own life and the play, her every action a performance, including outsize signals of grief. On her first entrance, trailing yards of black veil, she cradles an exotic urn containing her brother's ashes and sings the mournful "Fear no more the heat o' the sun" from Cymbeline. Francolini is a tuneful belter and holds the stage with easy pleasure, especially when she later sings a reprise of Cesario's willow cabin speech. This Olivia is hugely enjoyable to watch and listen to and readily sends herself up, but it would be difficult to believe she is capable of any true feeling for anyone else.

Evelyn Miller's excellent Viola (pictured above, left) seems to be in a different, more conventional production. Strong, confident, determined and sincere, she is painfully in love with Orsino, while he, as played by Raphael Bushay, is genuinely smitten with her, albeit as a boy. This Orsino seems to be learning hitherto unacknowledged things about himself. The other character who truly understands what it is to love is Antonio (a sympathetic Nicholas Karimi), Sebastian's saviour, who in most productions is abandoned to unrequited loneliness when the couples pair off. Not so here. The problem with this is that Sebastian (Andro Cowperthwaite, looking uncannily like his "twin") comes over as an opportunist, taking advantage of a gay man when that suited, but blithely agreeing to marry a misguided rich woman when that was an option, despite really preferring Antonio.

The café is peopled with a jolly band of musicians dressed in sailor outfits (who double as Orsino's court) as well as Olivia's household. Her cousin, Sir Toby (Michael Matus), is a drag queen, his put-upon companion Sir Andrew (Matthew Spencer) a dim posh boy in a blond toupée, while Maria (Anita Reynolds) busily helps behind the bar. There is never a dull moment with wigs and glittery costumes galore. In contrast Richard Cant's Malvolio (pictured below, observed by others including Matus and Spencer) is a slight, prissy, secretarial type in a sandy tweed suit, until he abandons this for custard-coloured shorts and socks in response to Maria's forged letter.

Richard Cant as Malvolio observed by others including Michael Matus (as Toby) and Matthew Spencer (as Andrew Aguecheek)

The conspirators - a whole gang of them, including Julie Legrand's wistful Feste - don't make much effort to hide from Malvolio when he is reading the planted letter, but Cant manages to extract every bit of the comedy. His later cruel humiliation is not given much space and he is even persuaded back for the final sing-song despite his famous promise to be revenged on the whole pack of them.

All in all, this is a mixed evening, rather long at almost three hours, including some raucous fun and not a few interesting innovations, but with little of the shade that should accompany the glitter.

@heathermneill

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