Friday, 19 July 2019

THEATRE REVIEW: Twelfth Night - Grosvenor Park Open Air Theatre, Chester.


This production of Shakespeare’s beloved comedy is a wildly funny, brightly-coloured, high-action, madcap take on the play, with simply the best Malvolio this reviewer has ever seen. Ever. (And I’ve seen “Twelfth Night” at least fifteen times, including the Globe Theatre production with Stephen Fry in the role.) It is currently playing in repertory at Grosvenor Park Open Air Theatre in Chester, produced by Chester Storyhouse.

Director Julia Thomas, inspired by a real life visit to a Swiss town in the middle of a drunken yodelling festival, had set the court of Illyria in a fictional modern day place where the clothes were colourfully Eastern European / smart Spanish / coastal hippie (why not? – designer Rhys Jarman has a wild imagination), and Count Orsino (a very chilled-out, rock-star-like Steven Elliott) never stopped partying on the beach. Lots of lively dancing, lots of music from a small group of actors on instruments, lots of singing, and a rather versatile hot dog stand. Plus a lot of alcohol. The permanently tipsy Sir Toby Belch actually blended into the scenery in this production.

Viola was played with contrasting dignity and coolness by Whitney Kehinde. Having been washed ashore after her shipwreck, clutching a bag of her seemingly-drowned brother’s clothes, she dressed like him partly to keep his memory alive as well as for her own protection. Once twin brother Sebastian appeared on the scene (played with a sensitive masculinity by Marc Benga), the twin relationship was given a delicate poignancy, and the reunion scene at the end was quite tender – and enhanced by Antonio, the sailor with a crush on Sebastian, who was being performed with such depth and sincerity by Joseph Millson he was almost pulling focus. (The repertory season programme says he has the title role in “Henry V.”)

If Orsino’s court was crazy, Olivia’s household matched it. Olivia herself, an elegant Sarah-Jane Potts, mostly sailed above the chaos below stairs – and Whitney Kehinde’s persona as Orsino’s manservant Cesario was so cool, it was quite believable when Olivia started falling for “him.” The love triangle of Orsino/Olivia/Cesario was greeted with pragmatic incredulity by Kehinde, who frequently detached herself from all the madness to leave the other characters to it. The only other sensible person around, it seemed, was the fool and musician Feste, who wandered about between both courts delivering caustic wit and singing rather bluesy songs to her guitar, while whipping her hat out for some cash at every opportune moment. (Jessica Dives was wonderful in this role, and so was the original music of John Biddle.)

Sir Toby Belch (quite a poised alcoholic when played by Chris Wright) was partnered with a nervous, babbling Sir Andrew Aguecheek (frenetic comedy and very bad dress sense from Mitesh Soni) and a dryly sarcastic Maria (the grounded Lisa Howard) to have late night parties, behave badly, and finally deliver a major prank to their nemesis: the steward of the house, Malvolio.

And I don’t have enough words to praise how actor Samuel Collings, Julia Thomas’s direction, and Rhys Jarman’s complete rethink of the “yellow stockings” costume design completely put Malvolio into a new dimension. Collings’ performance was marvellous: as the earlier Malvolio he delivered an uptight, anal personality with dynamic timing, and as the later Malvolio, a whole repressed inner personality was unleashed with full sliminess and inappropriateness – and then quite a dark energy at the end, when he was swearing his revenge. (Did Shakespeare ever think of writing a sequel?) Collings’ real-life talents at posing in difficult yoga positions while standing on his head were utilised for the discovery of the letter scene. And I will not describe the “yellow stockings” reveal moment, save that it is the hardest I have laughed for a long time, and incredibly innovative and original. Absolutely classic, in every possible way.

Reviewer - Thalia Terpsichore
on - 17/7/19

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