Twelfth Night

William Shakespeare
Stafford Festival Shakespeare
Stafford Castle
(2009)

Publicity photo

If you're going to Stafford Festival, be sure to wear some flowers in your hair. That's because Shakespeare's boisterous comedy has been shipped to the 1960s and a time of kaftans, flower power and hippies.

Peter Rowe's open-air production, set against a backdrop of the magnificent castle ruins, is a cleverly constructed show that's been thought through with care, precision and fine detail.

Rowe, who's staged a couple of rock 'n' roll pantos for Stafford Gatehouse Theatre, and musical director Greg Palmer get the audience in the mood with a 20-minute set of '60s music featuring songs from the likes of Bob Dylan, Donovan and Pink Floyd. Thirteen young dancers help to fill the sumptuous set and could have been transported from the Woodstock or Isle of Wight festivals.

By the time Michael Shaeffer as Orsino utters the immortal words "If music be the food of love, play on", you've really worked up an appetite for this unusual staging.

The show doesn't disappoint, with Shakespeare's songs also being given an appropriate treatment - "O Mistress Mine", for instance, has the feel of an early Beatles' song. The selection of tunes is eminently suitable, with the Kinks' "Lola" ("Girls will be boys and boys will be girls") striking a resonant note as it ends Act I and Stephen Stills' "Love The One You're With" marking the formal ending of the production.

On occasions there's a ten-piece band making sweet music before actors put down their instruments to get the tone right with the Bard's text.

It's a sparkling production which reaches even greater heights with the introduction of Eric Potts as Sir Toby Belch and Kraig Thornber as Sir Andrew Aguecheek. This double act give such a wonderful impression of drunks that you'd swear their bottles were filled with something stronger than water.

Just when it appears the two characters have reluctantly put aside their jesting and carousing, they crack up in fits of laughter. Their improvisation might not go down well with purists but their hilarity is so contagious you're almost wishing for their return when they're not on stage.

Accomplished musician Giles New (Feste) joins them for an uproarious scene in which they're hidden as they watch Malvolio find a letter purportedly from the countess Olivia. Slapstick, innuendo and incredulity abound as they give a comedy masterclass.

There's also a jolly performance from Claire Storey as Maria while Jenny Platt is an enchanting Viola, Georgina White an impressive, lovesick Olivia and Michael Schaeffer an ardent yet faithful suitor who goes against the '60s free love ethos.

Victor McGuire's Malvolio is understated, never becoming too angry nor too proud as he resists in taking the limelight away from the playful pair.

One or two cast members appear to have been chosen for their musicianship rather than their acting ability although their theatrical skills were in no way inadequate.

On the whole it's a hugely enjoyable way to spend a summer's evening. Depending on which stand you sit in you might even be dazzled by the late-evening sunshine.

You don't need any artificial stimulants to appreciate this version of Twelfth Night - it's far out, man.

"Twelfth Night" continues until July 11th

Reviewer: Steve Orme