This summer, Nottingham Playhouse has brought some of its talent out into the open as the garden of Wellington Circus on the theatre’s doorstep is transformed into the land of Ilyria. It is Twelfth Night and the word on everyone’s lips is love.
Duke Orsino has fallen for the fair Olivia, but the melancholic Olivia is tired of his advances. Along comes Viola, recently washed ashore in this foreign land who, thinking that her brother Sebastian is drowned, offers herself to Orsino disguised as the manservant Cesario. Viola falls madly in love with her master, but whilst delivering a token of Orsino’s love, manages to become (as the boyish Cesario) the object of Olivia’s affection. Throw into the mix Olivia’s butler Malvolio (who also happens to love his mistress), a roguish trio set on causing trouble and a not-so-dead Sebastian, and all the necessary dramatic and comedic pieces are firmly in place.
Mischief and mistaken identity are a staple of Shakespearean comedies, but in Twelfth Night these themes are perhaps used to most memorable effect. In this one-act production, director Martin Berry has skilfully pared down the script to utilise all the crowd-pleasing best bits, thrown in a few songs and added a smattering of audience participation to create a light-hearted gem that’s perfect for a summer’s evening.
A cast of just four actors transform with ease between different parts, each clearly distinguishable from the next through big and bold characterisation and a range of accents that, we’re led to believe, might be different at every performance. Each performer brings energetic enthusiasm, confidence in working with the crowd and skill in responding to the unpredictability of an open-air performance. The odd car alarm, church bell and costume malfunction all become fair game, with impromptu asides to the audience bringing some of biggest laughs of the evening.
The use of sound effects and music are pitched just right, adding to the comedy rather than overpowering it. A colourful set that sits somewhere between a children’s playground and the marketplace at Ikea perfectly compliments a mish-mash of outfits that are both bizarre and distinctive. Even the costume changes themselves are unapologetic and expertly choreographed.
Lisa Ambalavanar plays Olivia with a cool and confident ease whilst Charlotte East presents us with both a sweet and charming Viola and a delightfully hapless Cesario. East’s Toby Belch, Ambalavanar’s Maria and AK Golding’s Sir Andrew Aguecheek use physicality and comic timing to great effect, particularly when attempting to hide from the unsuspecting Malvolio, played by Zoe May Dales. Dales also transforms into the noble, swashbuckling Sebastian and an imposing Irish priest.
An unexpected joy of this production is associating the actors’ performances with the characters that undoubtedly inspired some of their portrayals. Most notable are Golding’s laddish and Liam Gallagher-esque Orsino and Dales’s Malvolio, a vocal dead ringer for Schitt’s Creek’s Moira Rose, particularly when addressing ‘Sir To-bay’.
As family friendly open-air productions go, Twelfth Night ticks all the right boxes. There’s no guarantee you’ll dodge the rain but isn’t that just part of the fun?