Ticketmaster Summer in Stages

Twelfth Night

William Shakespeare
Open Air Theatre, Regent’s Park
(2005)

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Viola, separated from her twin brother Sebastian in a shipwreck off the coast of Illyria, disguises herself as a youth dressed in her brother’s cast-offs. She styles herself ‘Cesario’ and joins the court of the Duke Orsino, soon to fall in love with her master. But he employs her to help him woo the object of his affections: the ice-maiden Olivia.

Olivia, emerging from a long period of mourning after the deaths of her father and brother, instead becomes besotted with Orsino’s ardent young messenger. And when Viola’s brother turns up unexpectedly, confusions of identity and gender quickly follow, not to mention some underhand plotting below stairs. Don’t worry, it’s all easy to follow on stage.

Recent revivals have relocated Illyria in a Bollywood version of the post-British Raj or an Italian country garden of shadowy cypress glades. But none has had quite the spicy potency of Tim Sheader’s Open Air staging which sets the action in a forgotten Spanish colonial outpost in the 18th century, an island of misrule beset by marauding buccaneers; a dangerous land of voodoo cults and treasure-seeking villains, where anything can happen and probably will.

The grateful actress and emerging star at the heart of this lively production is the gorgeously sexy Sirine Saba as an initially frosty Olivia, an hispanic Condesa in black lace and funereal seclusion, but with a tell-tale fondness for puffing on a fragrant cheroot, and whose loins are stirred by the gallant wooing of Mariah Gale’s ardent young ‘Cesario’.

Suffice it to say that James Millard, a name to watch and another rising star actor as Sebastian, is the delighted beneficiary of his sister’s wooing techniques, although his steamy coupling and marriage with Olivia is initially not without its problems and angry misunderstandings.

Gale herself, recently seen to triumphant effect in The Last Waltz season at the Arcola in east London, proves a fine verse speaker with a particularly ardent rendering of the ‘willow cabin’ speech in her opening scene with Viola.

But she also demonstrates a rare talent for knockabout comedy with a cheeky flying kick, aimed at the rump of Daniel Flynn’s Orsino, a careless doffing of her jacket as she gets down to the serious business of wooing, and some amusing sword play when challenged to a duel.

In this production, below stairs is not quite so potent, with a listless Sir Toby Belch from the usually reliable Desmond Barrit, and a compact, scholarly Aguecheek by James Loye, leaping about while peering at the world through Mr Toad horn-rims, rather than the tall, galumphing knight that Shakespeare’s description demands.

Perhaps due to cuts in the text, there also seems a smaller role than usual for Harriet Thorpe’s Maria, Olivia’s housekeeper. This fine actress recently caught critical eyes as a sumptuously blowsy chanteuse in the Brighton Rock musical at the Almeida last year. But here, while she still cuts a fine figure, her character seems sidelined and not finally required to answer for her cruel treatment of Malvolio, Olivia’s pompous butler.

All of this becomes unimportant given a triumphant performance by Martin Jarvis,whom international readers will more closely identify with the Just William and Wodehouse stories.

He plays Malvolio to wonderfully comic effect, getting a personal round for his witty rendering of the letter scene, and emerging as a gold-clad version of a Spanish torero, with cross-gartered yellow stockings that, for once, actually match the characterisation — designer Jessica Curtis’s perfect solution to an age-old problem that has puzzled theatrical costumiers for a century or more.

I also enjoyed Terence Wilton’s gravel-throated Antonio and the swashbuckling performance of Dominic Colchester’s piratical sea captain. But the performance of the evening comes from Simon Day, fondly remembered for his silly-ass aristocrat in the National’s Anything Goes, here in a dangerous voodoo version of the clown Feste who, at the close of a chilly press night, managed to enchant audiences with his delicious tenor rendering of “Hey. ho! The wind and the rain”, a moment of total theatrical magic.

And just for a moment reflect on the Open Air history of this play which opened theatricals in Regent’s Park back in 1932 with four matinee performances of a West End ‘black and white’ staging by Robert Atkins, starring Phyllis Neilson-Terry as Olivia, playing to rain-drenched audiences arranged on deckchairs! Nice to see that the 1932 playbill demands audiences not to throw their programmes down, but deposit them in the litter baskets provided by HM Office of Works!

Reviewer: John Thaxter