Playing the laughter on

Twelfth Night (Queensland Shakespeare Ensemble)

August 24 – September 8

Roma Street Parklands, Amphitheatre

As their previous productions in the parklands have shown, The Queensland Shakespeare Ensemble rarely disappoints in bringing the Bard’s works to life and in the group’s hands, “Twelfth Night” is accordingly a hilarious share of its revels.

The perennial favourite features many of Shakespeare’s predictable play patterns; there is a shipwreck, a countess in morning, a lovelorn Duke, misplaced love, confusion of twins, a girl disguised as a boy, a melancholy fool and of course a letter. The combination makes for a memorable romantic comedy of mistaken identities.

The play centres on twins Viola (Anthea Patrick), a young woman of aristocratic birth and Sebastian (Silvan Rus), who are separated in a shipwreck. Viola (who is disguised as a boy) falls in love with the powerful nobleman Duke Orsino (Lilana Macarone), who in turn is in love with the wealthy and beautiful Countess Olivia (Linda Taimre). Upon meeting Viola, Countess Olivia falls in love with her thinking she is a man.

Although the narrative necessitates a truly ensemble production, within the madness there are some outstanding performances. The lively comic scenes become highlights in the hands of Paige Poulier as the crude and jolly Sir Toby Belch and Chris Vaag as Sir Andrew Aguecheek, appropriate for a play in which the fools are the ones who control the humour through creating confusion. When joined by Rob Pesalfini as Feste to become three merry men rowdily turning the mistress’ home into an ale-house, the result is total hilarity, of both the physical and verbal kind. For as Feste proclaims in Act One, “Better a witty fool, than a foolish wit”.

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Chris Vaag’s performance as the foolish knight, goaded into duelling and slowly having his money pilfered by Sir Toby, is a standout; he steals not only every scene but every moment he is on stage as the dim-witted and vain clown, with a Frank Spencer-ish wimpish smile and woe-is-me persona. And he is a hilarious, nuanced drunk who, even when intoxicated, is capable of making a good pun. And when Sir Andrew and Sir Toby are joined by one of Olivia’s servants, Fabian (Silvan Rus) in the garden of Olivia’s house to play their practical joke on the notoriously-abused Malvolio (Colin Smith) there is more mirth as the three men hide among the trees and shrubbery.

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As the melancholy Malvolio, Smith is initially indignant and self-righteous as the stern, straight-laced head servant in the household of Lady Olivia. And even before the full effect of the cruel trick in making him believe that Olivia is in love with him is revealed, there is hint at evocation of audience sympathy in his Act Two monologue consideration of the forged declaration, thanks to an engaging delivery that exploits timing and emphasis to full effect, making the lines appear as clearly as if they were in a modern text. And then there is the Malvolio of later acts, hysterical as he struts about wearing cross-gartered yellow stockings and with strange plastered smile (mistakenly believing that this is Olivia’s desire).

This is a polished production that makes the most of every opportunity. Cover costumes enhance characters and add visual appeal to the often intimate staging, as once again, the audience sits upon the stage, allowing action to be spilled into the tiered amphitheatre and lush parkland surrounds. And it is appropriate for a show that begins with the immortal lines ‘If music be the food of love play on”, that live music features as another highlight, not just as a vital part of the show itself, but pre-show and at intermission, from a band of multi-talented cast members. This also an authenticity to the experience as the ragtag band of merry minstrels go on to bring the Shakespearean classic alive in such as gloriously chaotic manner.

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Queensland Shakespeare Ensemble is a vibrant, energetic and enthusiastic company whose work is always worth watching for not only its entertainment value but its success in making the Bard’s works so accessible to modern audiences. With such a vivid text, lively performances and atmospheric additions, “Twelfth Night” guarantees a great time to had by all.

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