Grosvenor Park Open Air Theatre, Chester (reviewed on opening night, July 5)
5 July 2019 – 24 August 2019; run time 3hr
Twelfth Night is the first of three productions being staged at Chester’s open air theatre in the city’s Grosvenor Park, a summer event now in its 10th year and an established part of the local cultural scene, managed by the Storyhouse complex.
This theatre in the round, with tiered seating mostly open to the elements, generates a festive atmosphere in which audiences are encouraged to relax and picnic before the show.
Meanwhile misunderstandings, mischief and mistaken identity all combine on stage to achieve an evening of theatre with many laugh-out-loud moments from an audience clearly enjoying themselves.
The 1960s, flower power and the summer of love are heartily evoked In this joyous Julia Thomas production of Shakespeare's gender-switching comedy.
Count Orsino's Illyria has courtiers as ageing hippies, who sway and dance, trance-like, to music - the ‘food of love’. Steven Elliot’s count, played with self-delusional panache, sports a feather headdress that would be the envy of any self-respecting goose. His petulant wooing of Olivia, here portrayed as a Freda Kahlo look-alike without the eyebrow, blinds him to the real identity of ‘Cesario’ and her love for him.
The costumes echo the gender-bending theme of the play: as disguise and protection for Viola, a lone woman on an alien shore; as transgressive; when Sir Toby scandalises the puritanical Malvolio by prancing drunkenly in bra and grass skirt; when the gullible Sir Andrew Aguecheek offers a series of bizarre outfits, and when the gulled Malvolio is persuaded to wear yellow, cross-gartered stockings.
There's a stand-out performance by Samuel Collings as Malvolio, a narcissist whom Olivia rightly identifies as ‘full of self-love’. His yoga workout, from downward dog to warrior pose and more, performed around the stage to the delight of the audience, preempts his humiliation by Maria.
Gay love - of Antonio for Sebastian, which is implicit in the text - is made explicit through a strong performance by Joseph Millson, who gives the character of Antonio, normally a foil for the play’s main action, a significant dimension.
Feste, the Fool is a triumph of casting, with Jessica Dives and composer John Biddle both breathing new musical life into the songs that permeate what is generally regarded as Shakespeare’s most musical play.
This energetic, irreverent, joyous and very funny production confirms why Twelfth Night, probably one of Shakespeare’s most performed plays, continues to entertain.