Left – (above) Lachlan Woods, Christie Whelan Browne, Colin Hay, Russell Dykstra. Cover – Richard Piper, Frank Woodley. Photos – Jeff Busby
For the final production in their 2018 season, Melbourne Theatre Company has hit the high notes with a sparkling performance of the traditional Christmas favourite Twelfth Night. Staged in the larger of the Southbank theatres, the Sumner, Shakespeare’s gender bending comedy takes on a new brilliance in the hands of director Simon Phillips. Inspired by his directorial forays into opera and large-scale musicals, this is Shakespeare with a difference, upbeat and with music at its heart.
The curtain rises on a breathtaking tableau, for all the world like an early Impressionist painting. This misty invented funereal scene acts as a counterpoint to the froth and high jinks to come. The mist clears, but the visual splendour continues. On the brightly illuminated open stage Gabriela Tylesova’s inspired set design glows in a soft, Mediterranean palate of earthy colours. Tall floor lamps add to the ambience and double as props. Nothing impedes the simple, clean lines. Strategically placed stage ‘furniture’ – a doorway, an arch, a bed, a couch – descends from the roof, or a dark trapdoor opens below, before neatly disappearing.
Tylesova’s costumes are sumptuous. For the young and desirable: tactile and sensual, peachy suede and leather, handmade boots and jerkins. For the fools and elders: stiff and shiny, ballooning and Elizabethan.
In spite of Geoffrey Rush’s withdrawal from the production in July, there are stars aplenty onstage. Frank Woodley brings his high intelligence and physical dexterity to new comic heights as the bumbling Sir Andrew Ague-cheek, Christie Whelan Browne simpers and stamps in a petulant version of Olivia, and Colin Hay (Men at Work vocalist) has the audience swooning to the songs and folk-inspired musical score by Kate Miller-Heidke and Keir Nuttall. The spirited musicians, Caleb Alloway, Roderick Cairns and Alec Steedman, who double as actors, are at the centre of the action, with Steedman’s violin taking flight in emotional crescendos.
This production is less about stars, and more about teamwork. In Twelfth Night, Shakespeare has allowed the riff-raff to take over the plot and the script. Phillips has augmented the comedy by allowing no one to pull rank. The noble characters, Orsino (Lachlan Woods) and Olivia (Whelan Browne), are as absurd as their underlings.
Esther Hannaford, who shone as the lead in Beautiful: The Carole King Musical earlier this year, brings a dynamic physicality to the pivotal role of Viola, navigating the plot through all its twists and turns with a light comic touch, but is a little unschooled in the art of delivering Shakespearean dialogue. Shakespeare veterans Tamsin Carroll (Maria) and Richard Piper (Sir Toby Belch) excel in this art and their resonant voices preserve the meaning and poetry of the bard’s timeless words.
Finally, Russell Dykstra plays the unfortunate Malvolio (of the famous yellow stockings and cross-garters) with delicious precision, morphing from a stiff-necked killjoy to a sentimental narcissist with the point of a toe.
The night ends with another invented scene, a finely choreographed ensemble piece to include all actors and musicians in a musical celebration. If Shakespeare created a lot of fun for his actors with this play, Phillips has boosted the comedy factor with his operatic vision, creating a spectacular entertainment and promising audiences a hilarious and joyous night out.
Melbourne Theatre Company presents
by William Shakespeare
Director Simon Phillips
Venue: Southbank Theatre, The Sumner
Dates: 12 November 2018 – 5 January 2019
Times: Mon/Tues 6.30pm | Wed 1pm & 8pm | Thurs/Fri 8pm | Sat 2pm & 8pm
Duration: 2 hour 40 mins
Tickets: $49 – $139
Bookings: www.mtc.com.au | 03 8688 0800.