Monday, July 15

Twelfth Night – Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre

Twelfth Night or What You Will is a little wishy-washy. Is it a girl or a boy? A grief comedy? A musical or a straight play? It is what you will make of it. The building blocks are all there. The humour, the grief, the ribaldry, and the bleeding heart, all come out to play. Owen Horsley’s new production lives its life to the fullest, making great use of the Open Air Theatre environment, breathing vitality into the too oft neglected queer imagery of the text, and taking full advantage of the Regent’s Park audience’s willingness to be delighted, transported, and even occasionally challenged. This is a production is a rarity among contemporary stagings of Shakespeare’s work in that treats its historical material with full reverence without taking anything in it for granted. Audiences overly familiar with Shakespeare’s oeuvre can expect to be surprised and those just breeching its not inconsiderable cultural walls can expect a hearty welcome to the fold.

With considerable stylistic panache across both Basia Bińkowska’s tremendously alluring and intriguingly ghostly set and Ryan Dawson Laight’s haute maritime costume ensembles which elicited actual oohs and ahs from the audience this production is visual delectation. Unapologetically queer in its staging its performances too are dramatically ecstatic. From Anna Francolini’s debauched and devastated diva, Olivia (both namesake and proprietor of the queer cabaret club where this play unburdens itself to audiences), to Julia Legrand’s fabulous Feste, playing the fool has never felt so noble or necessary. Sexy, bold, and daring, this production doesn’t really bother with trying to bridge the massive, centuries wide, gap between the play’s creation and the audience’s reception of it with any kind of pedantic handholding but rather invests wisely in its characters themselves and their all too relatable anxieties and overconfidences making them undeniable to their spectators and obviously delightful to their performers. It is no mean feat to sell audiences on Sir Toby Belch (Michael Matus), the drag queen, or Fabian (Jon Trenchard) pronounced “Fab Ian”, but this Twelfth Night makes it all seem as natural as two boys falling in love. Or two girls for that matter. Or any number of people of various genders and experiences all bound together momentarily under the power of a beautiful cabaret performer’s ethereal voice belting out a siren song.

Beautifully imaginative, bewitching, and altogether beguiling, this production features fight and intimacy direction by Rachel Brown-Williams and Ruth Cooper-Brown for Rc-Annie that particularly stuns in the Nicholas Karimi’s performance as Antonio, a doomed sea captain too often side-lined by the little wiggle room in the play’s various romantic plots that interpreters tend to wedge a happy-ish straight romantic ending into. Karimi closes that gap, decisively, with his hips, and both his lover Sebastian, the play and the audience are better of for it. Ambiguity is not, however, entirely banished from this seaside fable. Aideen Malone’s lighting design is as mysterious and chilling as the plot is accessible, and the performances are heart-warming. The formidable strength of this staging of Shakespeare’s most musical comedy is that it deftly balances both bawdy and brash notes with melancholic melodrama. Richard Cant’s Malvolio inhabits humiliation with a performative grace that is bizarrely comforting in its easy relatability. Matthew Spencer’s Andrew Aguecheek too is shockingly endearing and lovable in the extreme. Harbour in their port for an evening this summer, allow yourself to be wined, dined, and serenaded, and savour this ravishing spectacle while it lasts.

Twelfth Night or What You Will plays at the Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre until 8th June 2024.

Reviewer: Kira Daniels

Reviewed: 9th May 2024

North West End UK Rating:

Rating: 5 out of 5.