REVIEW: Twelfth Night (Queensland Theatre)

Move over, Beyonce! Christen O'Leary as Malvolia. Image via Kath Rose & Associates.

Where? QPAC’s Playhouse Theatre

When? April 28 – May 19

‘Things change and so do we’ – Queensland Theatre has beautifully reinvigorated Shakespeare’s final comedy, Twelfth Night, with a suite of new songs by Tim Finn. I grew up listening to a lot of Split Enz (thanks, Dad) and Finn’s thoughtful composition adds a whole new level to this production.

Twelfth Night is the Bard’s most beloved and well-balanced comedy, as much about melancholy as it is about the bright shimmer of new love, and Queensland Theatre have absolutely done it justice. Shipwrecked in the land of Illyria and believing her twin brother Sebastian drowned, Viola sets out disguised as page boy Cesario to the court of Duke Orsino, where she becomes embroiled in a mess of amours and affections. Things are complicated further by a group of mischievous drunkards, Viola’s own feelings, and the timely appearance of Sebastian, who has also found his way to the Duke’s court …it’s a wild and whimsical tale of mistaken identity, disguise and deception, tricks and traps, and the power of love and desire in all their forms.

Jason Klarwein as Duke Orsino and Jessica Tovey as Viola/Cesario. Image via Kath Rose & Associates.

Jessica Tovey was a brilliant Viola, and had great chemistry with Jason Klarwein’s lovesick Duke Orsino. Christen O’Leary brought her characteristic gravitas to the role of Malviolia, stealing the show with her fabulously provocative dancing in yellow stockings, and delivering the Act 2 monologue with brilliant, manic passion. Liz Buchanan was intense and regal as the mourning countess Olivia, and Sandro Colarelli had a strong stage presence as the wise fool Feste. Bryan Probets stumbled and hiccupped convincingly as Olivia’s drunken uncle, Sir Toby Belch, and was joined in his troublemaking by scheming servant Maria (Kathryn McIntyre) and gullible Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Colin Smith). The entire cast made good use of physical comedy, bordering on slapstick, and their comedic timing was spot-on.

Bryan Probets as Sir Toby Belch. Image via Kath Rose & Associates.

The role of Sebastian (Kevin Spink)’s rescuer, notable pirate Antonio (played by Kurt Phelan), as his possible lover has been ambiguous in many adaptations, but was certainly implied more heavily in this work through highly physical interaction with Sebastian, which few other characters had.

In his Director’s Note, Sam Strong writes that the design team were resistant to setting the play in a concrete time or place, and that Queensland Theatre’s Illyria is a “magical and slightly dangerous ‘other’ world, in our case part classical Adriatic and part the crumbling sexiness of Havana”. In this vein, the costuming also seemed unsure of its place and time – silk jackets and velvet cloaks, but also open Hawaiian shirts, sunglasses, and jeans. The interjections of modernity were mostly seamless, but the selfie did feel a bit out of place.

Illyria onstage. Image by Lachlan Cross.

The single, multipurpose set designed by Tracy Grant Lord allowed for so many different spaces onstage, and spectacular lighting design by Ben Hughes brought the mysterious land of Illyria to life and assisted in separating those spaces, to keep secrets and plan trickery and reveal disguises.

Liz Buchanan as Olivia and Sandro Colarelli as Feste. Image via Kath Rose & Associates.

The addition of original music, composed by Crowded House and Split Enz legend Tim Finn, is really what makes this performance an absolute standout. I had imagined it as a backing soundtrack, similar to Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet film, but the final effect is closer to musical theatre, with styles varying from ballads to Broadway, and all performed splendidly – who knew that Queensland Theatre housed so many talented singers? – to a live, onstage band that acted as almost part of the set: James Dobinson as musical supervisor, orchestrator and arranger, conductor, and keyboardist; Alanna Ritchie on drums/percussion; Arun Roberts on bass/guitar; and Dominic Woodhead on guitars. Lyrically, the music was modern but did not feel out of place – a testament to both Tim Finn’s prowess in composition, and the timeless themes of Shakespeare’s works.

Portrait of Tim Finn, via Kath Rose & Associates

Overall, Queensland Theatre took a risk in taking Twelfth Night halfway to a musical, and it has more than paid off. Brilliantly wrought and beautifully executed, the Bard himself should be proud of this imaginative performance.

You can purchase tickets to Twelfth Night via the Queensland Theatre website.