Oh what a riotous night

Twelfth Night (Queensland Theatre)

QPAC, The Playhouse

April 28 – May 19

“Twelfth Night” opens with one of Shakespeare’s most resonate quotes; ‘if music be the food of love play on’ Duke Orsino of Illyria commands. It is a festive sentiment so apt that it is appears more than once in what is Shakespeare’s most musical play. It is appropriate then for tunes be added to the Bard’s lyrics by music legend Tim Finn, as is the case with Queensland Theatre’s realisation of the Shakespearean comedy.

The melancholic nature of Shakespeare suits Finn’s style and with Sam Strong’s direction songs are seamlessly integrated, making it difficult to recall that numbers like ‘Falling in Love’ and ‘Autumn Comedy’ have not always bookended intermission. Although there is affection for music evident throughout, the numbers are not as memorable as those of Finn’s soundtrack to then QTC’s brilliant “Ladies in Black”. Even so, they still add another (mostly delicate) layer to the play, like the fairy lights that twinkle atop the intricate revolving stage centrepiece. Detailed staging also enhances the production in many ways. The revolving stage not only creates nooks and crannies of interest in which its multi-story action takes place, but it allows central showcase of the excellent band of musicians that bring Finn’s compositions to life.

Washed ashore on Illyria and separated from her presumed-dead twin brother Sebastian (Kevin Spink), the gutsy Viola (Jessica Tovey) must learn to survive alone in an exotic foreign country. This means disguising herself as a man and so, as Cesario, she gets a job with Duke Orsino (Jason Klarwein) who has decided he is love with Countess Olivia (Liz Buchanan). Unfortunately, Olivia is more interested in mourning recent family deaths than responding to suitors, so Orsino sends Cesario to mediate. The problem is that the Viola he knows as Cesario has fallen in love with the Duke. And all the while there is an ensemble entourage watching on in amusement, providing much of the play’s humour in their drinking, joking, singing and torment.

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“Twelfth Night” is a story about the thrill of falling in love, but also of growing old and showing mortality. Indeed, there is some darkness in its focus of characters left behind and mistreated, through concentration in this realisation appears to be more on laughs and silliness. One of the maligned characters is Oliva’s vain and pompous steward, Malvolio, or in this case, a more comic than tragic, Malvolia, in cross-gendered play by the acclaimed Christen O’Leary. When several characters concoct a plan to make Malvolia believe Olivia returns her love, O’Leary is hilarious as she struts about with strange plastered smile (mistakenly believing that this is Olivia’s desire) and then even better in an Act Two reveal of her cross-gartered yellow stockings in ‘Lady Ho Ho’, the show’s musical and comic highlight.

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The play showcases much humour of the Shakespeare sort; “Twelfth Night” was the last true comedy that the bard wrote so it represents a refinement of the cross-dressing et al comic conventions that that personify his more light-hearted fare. There is mistaken identity, cross dressing caused awkwardness when Viola (as Cesario) is instructed to bathe Orsino, baudy jokes courtesy of the always-excellent Bryan Probets as Sir Toby Belch and eavesdropping whilst remaining hidden like in “Much Ado About Nothing”.

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A clear energy all around makes for a show of much colour and movement. Jessica Tovey is a spirited but sincere Viola and Liz Buchanan infuses the wealthy countess Olivia’s mourning with lightness.  Perhaps the biggest standout, however, is Sandro Colarelli as Feste, Olivia’s jester servant. Although he is labelled as a fool in which Lady Olivia’s father took much delight, he is as much melancholy as comic as he uses his wisdom to awaken others. And vocally, he makes his musical numbers into sublime aural experiences.

The melan-comedy world of “Twelfth Night” has always been a merry, mixed-up realm of sex, love and gender games. It is a funny and melancholy place, but a complicated one thanks to its multi-storylines, which makes for a lengthy show duration. Still Queensland Theatre audience members do not seem to mind, rather having a ball with its musical interludes and riotous, farcical disorder.

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