Staging a production in an open-air Elizabethan-style theatre such as Shakespeare’s Rose is a feat rife with both challenges and potential. Joyce Branagh’s jubilant adaptation of Twelfth Night fulfils that potential and then some, in a triumphant production that pulses with brightness and energy from start to finish.
Our Illyria is an ode to the opulence of the Roaring Twenties, led by scenic designer Max Dorey’s Art Deco-inspired set and costume designer Sara Perks’ colourful Gatsby-esque styling. Pinstripes and flapper dresses abound, and a particular pair of cross-gartered yellow stockings do not disappoint.
Music is always present in this production – after all, “if music be the food of love, play on”! A fantastic band is on stage to provide a musical accent to a comedic moment or a fully-fledged song and dance. Composer Eamonn O’Dwyer outdoes himself with a perfectly pitched score and Hannah Francis-Baker deserves a special mention for popping up with a well-timed jazzy saxophone solo at every possible opportunity.
There isn’t a bum performance in the nearly 20-strong cast. Olivia Onyehara is the perfect comedic leading lady as Viola and Mark Holgate scores some surprisingly big laughs as Orsino. Clare Corbett channels Charlie Chaplin as the clown Feste, and Claire Storey doesn’t miss a beat through Malvolio’s tragic but hilarious transformation from uppity steward to stocking-wearing laughing stock.
Of course, the foursome at the heart of much of the farce have plentiful opportunities to shine, and they grab their chance with both hands. Sir Toby Belch and Maria, played by Fine Time Fontayne and Rina Mahoney respectively, make a delightfully saucy and irreverent pair. Mahoney in particular really brings out the best of her dialogue, imbuing a lot of meaning in lines that could easily have been lost in Shakespeare’s dense verse.
Alex Phelps puts in a blinder of a performance as the lovably foolish Sir Andrew Aguecheek, drawing uproarious laughter from the crowd with every little physical quirk and slapstick moment.
Cassie Valance as the oft-overlooked servant is the surprise star of the show. She clearly has a natural comedic energy that keeps every eye on her, even in scenes where Fabian barely has a line or two – every vacant expression and silly little movement has the audience in stitches.
It should go without saying, considering Twelfth Night is one of Shakespeare’s most-loved comedies, but the crux of this production’s success is really simply that it is genuinely, wonderfully funny. Movement director Simeon John-Wake has put physical comedy at the heart of the performance and it brings it to life.
Humour is threaded into every moment and punctuates every exchange. The cast weave amongst the groundlings in the audience, stealing chips and even a cheeky swig of a pint at one point. They create a fun and riotous atmosphere, and by the end every other line was eliciting claps and cheers from the crowd.
Twelfth Night is an evening of riotous summery hilarity that shows off everything that makes Shakespeare’s Rose Theatre something special. It’s a celebration of Shakespearean silliness, and a truly glorious experience for anyone lucky enough to be in York to witness it this summer.
By Sarah Ryan (Broadway World)