Thomas Tyrrell reviews Everyman Theatre’s Twelfth Night, a part of the Cardiff Open-Air Theatre Festival.
After a truncated 2021 festival that had audiences bringing their own socially distanced seating to makeshift stages, the Everyman Theatre returns to its old home in Sophia Gardens to give us their take on Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. You enter the open-air theatre to the sound of campfire classics being played on acoustic guitar while long-haired flower children hand you posies of wildflowers. It’s a delightful introduction to its cast of long-haired hippies in kaftans and tie-dye, though the mood, as it emerges, is far more ‘60s costume party’ than actual period piece. All the dodgy wigs, loud shirts and clunky medallions are present and correct, and while the production does have some laugh-out loud, sing-along moments, there are more than a few missed opportunities.
Shipwrecked on the island of Illyria without any means of support, Viola dons men’s clothes and adopts the name of Cesario to enter the household of Duke Orsino, where she serves as a romantic go-between for the lovestruck Duke and Olivia, the scornful object of his affections. Matters are complicated by Viola’s growing attraction to Orsino, as well as Olivia’s headlong passion for her—then complicated further by the re-emergence of Viola’s twin brother, Sebastian.
The play starts with one of those bits of Shakespeare most people have vaguely heard of, the ‘If music be the food of love, play on’ speech. It sets the tone of languid love-melancholy that defines Duke Orsino, but Joshua Ogle growls and bounces through it almost Tiggerishly, and is generally having far too good a time to convince us of his lovesickness. Alex Ogden-Davies as Viola has electric chemistry with both Orsino and Olivia, but in her scenes as Cesario she makes almost no effort to come across as male, either in acting or costuming. It’s a surprising choice that leaves the script to do the heavy-lifting as far as that plot point is concerned, and squanders the impact of a few decent comic beats. Kate Willets as Olivia is the best of the three performers, convincing as the spoilt princess surprised by her grief at the loss of her family.
In the B-plot, Olivia’s domestic servants and hangers-on hatch a scheme to trick and humiliate the austere Malvolio, who scorns and threatens their merry-making. Malvolio sums up the give and take of this adaptation—the character would work perfectly as one of the bowler-hatted establishment figures that were the butt of the 60’s rebels, so it’s initially disappointing to see him appearing, drably enough, as a security guard. On the other hand Ceris Jones is wonderfully snide in the role, getting comic mileage from his walkie-talkie, and the moment when he turns up mistakenly dressed for pub golf in the second half is one of the few moments where the costume party aesthetic really works.
Stalwart comic actress Sarah Bawler is a natural fit for Malvolio’s bawdy, hard-drinking adversary, the gender-swapped Sir Toby Belch, with her unlit joint the play’s one brief nod to drug culture. As ever, she’s a highlight, and gets most of the play’s arrestingly anachronistic lines, when the actors hijack Shakespeare’s pentameters to fling in references to Neil Diamond and Tom Jones; we even get the inevitable sing-along to Delilah. These are great crowd-pleasers, but the moment where the words “Thou gnarly scuzzbucket” are flung across the stage beats all of them put together.
A massive slapstick bunfight with inflatable bananas in the second half sums up an adaptation that’s at its best when indulging its instinct for slapstick; more cheesy than groovy, but never less than fun.
Find out more about Twelfth Night at the Cardiff Open Air Theatre Festival here.