Melbourne Theatre Company
Until Jan 5
It mightn’t have Geoffrey Rush as Malvolio, but Simon Phillips’ production of Twelfth Night remains highly anticipated, as anyone who has seen him direct Shakespeare for the MTC will know.
His big glossy cinematic visions of the tragedies always put bums on seats because they pulled out all stops to create immersive stage worlds – Richard III as a madly revolving, media-saturated House of Cards, a chiselled Hamlet trapped in a glacial surveillance state, and of course last year’s Macbeth, built around film star Jai Courtney, which seemed pitched to show teenage boys just how cool Shakespeare can be and felt like an action movie or video game come to life.
His approach to Shakespearean comedy takes a different leaf from Phillips’ book. It’s a production in sumptuous and slightly silly period dress that glories in the artifice of theatre, is suffused with minstrel-like musical interludes, and rides high on the sort of brilliantly confected ensemble drollery he mastered in The Drowsy Chaperone, say, or A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum.
Lachlan Woods (above), Christie Whelan Browne, Russell Dykstra and Colin Hay in the Melbourne Theatre Company’s production of Twelfth Night.Credit:Jeff Busby
Twelfth Night will make you laugh like a drain, but at the price of unbalancing the play. The comic subplot is so perfectly cast, so compelling to watch and so funny, it often upstages the main event.
It’s certainly Frank Woodley’s finest hour. His turn as idiot knight Sir Andrew Aguecheek is a virtuosic feat of clowning. The precision and inevitability of his affectionately crafted performance, fuelled as much by superb physical comedy as it is by a native instinct for Shakespeare’s gags, has the whole house in stitches, and a trace of melancholy, too. Woodley is good enough an actor to limn all the madcap antics with wistfulness: Sir Andrew is, after all, one of nature’s losers in love.
Opposite him, Richard Piper brings a rare balance of sympathy to Sir Toby, the attractive, cakes-and-ale hedonism darkly underscored by cruelty and disorder, while Tamsin Carroll’s Maria has conspiratorial wit sharp enough to really whet the edge of her malice towards Malvolio.
And Colin Hay works wonders as Feste – an avuncular presence, dispensing wisdom and foolery in a gentle Scottish brogue, and lifting the whole auditorium with the songs (the production features original composition by Kate Miller-Heidke and Keir Nuttall) he leads.
As Malvolio, Russell Dykstra isn’t in the same league. He’s too cartoonish to get all the light and shade, the exaggerations marching over subtlety in a way that feels at odds with the timbre of other performances. (There’s also a particularly uncomfortable moment when Malvolio runs leering across the stage trying to grope Christie Whelan-Browne’s Olivia.)
The casting stumbles with Esther Hannaford’s Viola. She sounds stilted and boxed in by vocal mannerism, with an uncontrolled tremulousness that might suggest an acute attack of nerves on opening night. Or perhaps she lacks the technique to reliably deliver the verse without almost panting for breath. Either way, she sounds neither effortless nor natural, and that’s a problem.
Ideally, Viola should be so utterly magnetic that everyone in the audience – men and women alike – is seduced. Unfortunately, Hannaford’s handling of the dialogue flattens a lot of the romance, especially in scenes with Orsino (Lachlan Woods), who hams things up to compensate.
The main plot does have one stellar drawcard: Christie Whelan-Browne as Olivia is crisp, impeccably timed and hilarious, whether she’s ostentatiously playing hard to get, or abandoning dirge and dignity for the ridiculous contortions of untamed desire.
Twelfth Night is a lustrous and laugh-out-loud funny entertainment and will be one of the summer’s hot tickets for good reason. Luxury casting, some sublime comedic performances, elaborate set and costume, and catchy original music make it a joy, even as you wish the rom were as strong as the com.
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