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Twelfth Night

Sunday Star-Times, 23 July 2006



Hilarious Twelfth Night Cast in Fresh Light

Reviewed by Gilbert Wong

While we tug our forelock at the mention of Shakespeare, how many of us have had to suffer through interminable, cack-handed productions that revel in Elizabethan obscurity?

Yet when done well Shakespeare is sublimely funny, supremely human, qualities this hilarious production achieves seemingly without effort, despite the sweat it must have taken.

Director Michael Hurst transports the kingdom of Illyria to an elegant Adriatic seaside resort in the 1950s.  John Verryt's set is a steeply raked beach, with a vast backdrop of azure sea and sky.  Glowing sunsets, the screech of seagulls and the lap of waves lull us into the sense of whimsy, while Elizabeth Whiting's costumes, white linen jackets, high-waisted trousers and a brocade dinner jacket suggest a playground for the privileged.

The noble twins Viola and Sebastian are separated after a shipwreck.  Unsure of her welcome on a strange shore, Viola pretends to be a man, Cesario, who quickly becomes a trusted go-between for Duke Orsino (Andrew Laing) in his pursuit of the Countess Olivia (Jennifer Ward-Lealand).  The gender bending works too well; Viola falls for the gentle duke, Olivia comes to fancy the woman in disguise, Cesario.  Olivia's pompous servant Malvolio, who has designs on his mistress, is taken down a few pegs by Olivia's drunken uncle Sir Toby Belch, her secretary Maria and Belch's partner in misdeeds Sir Andrew Aguecheek.  A worldly fool Feste watches all with bemusement.

The trio George Henare's drunkard Belch forms with Peter McCauley's Aguecheek and Oliver Driver's Feste, threatens to steal the show.  Driver's timing is so snappy; he's louche, self-referential and even sings, equal parts Nick Cave and fading cabaret crooner as music director Jason Smith, at the white baby grand just off centre stage, massages the melancholy lyrics into contemporary melodies.

Paul Barrett's Malvolio--think Mr Humphreys in a bad toupee--and Tandi Wright's Viola have the meatiest roles.  They must play for both laughs and for our hearts and they do so with subtle, truthful performances.

By Play's end we catch ourselves questioning our own cruelty in laughing at poor Malvolio.  When Viola finally finds her lost twin, Sebastian (Paolo Rotondo) it's truly heartfelt.

Best to forget the unlikelihood of the plot.

Shakespeare survives because he forges complex emotions amid the laughter.  As the best theatre should, this production leaves us wanting more.

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