Playhouse Theatre, QPAC, Brisbane
May 3, 2018

Twelfth Night is one of Shakespeare’s most ludicrous and hilarious comedies with the common themes of ridiculous mistaken identities, separated twins, cross-dressing and the old chestnut of unrequited love. It is Shakespeare’s medieval version of the musical, brimming with verse and song, and opening with the eminent phrase “If music be the food of love, play on!” As one of Shakespeare’s best-loved farcical plays, Twelfth Night has been modernised with a new soundtrack from a Bard of today, Tim Finn. The Crowded House star has composed and adapted 18 songs including O Mistress Mine, Lady Ho Ho and Come Away Death for this Queensland Theatre’s production. Director Sam Strong invited Tim to work on Twelfth Night after he composed the much-accoladed music for the award winning and record breaking, Ladies in Black, which toured nationally. Strong thought Twelfth Night would suit Finn’s writing style, with the classic Shakespearean plot of the joys and melancholia of love.

Christen O’Leary as Malvolia in Twelfth Night. Photographs all supplied

Finn is a Kiwi music legend, alleged to have been named by Paul McCartney as “the best living songwriter in the world” coupled with a quote from George Harrison that “Crowded House played the music the Beatles would be playing if still together.” In a recent interview with Tim Minchin, McCarthy joked that he hadn’t actually said that, but that he does love his songs.

The score varied between the obvious Crowded House pop style to slow ballads, and even few a Disney musical styled songs. There was a superb disco number, Falling into Love, which created a buzzing party atmosphere as the curtain fell on the first half, and Lady Ho Ho was a fun platform for Malvolia’s seductive prance. However, it was apparent that Finn was not fully conversant with the finer nuances of Twelfth Night, despite him reading and loving it before composing the score. Most of the music flowed well, but at times it was intrusive, seeming to halt the plot development and the comedic momentum for “yet another song.” The slow and dull song Autumn Comedy, which opened the second act was more reminiscent of a winter senescence, opening with a splutter rather than a bang. Hey Ho the Wind and the Rain were fun and worked well to finish the play, but there were insufficient “Hey Nonny Nonny’s” to keep a Shakespeare buff happy, losing some of the unique musical character of the medieval times. Overall though Finn’s music gave kudos to a familiar play and the flawless live band was a valuable addition, but a few less songs might have helped with the flow.

Jason Klarwein and Jessica Tovey

The acclaimed international set and costume designer Tracy Grant Lord made her Queensland Theatre debut after initially working on Queensland Ballet’s A Midsummers Night Dream. She created the land of Illyria using a divided revolving circular stage, with the instrumentalists nestled around a baby grand piano as the centrepiece. Alanna Ritchie on drums/percussion, Dominic Woodhead on guitar, and Arun Roberts on bass were a fun fixture, playing live on stage throughout the show and even making brief appearances in costume as extra characters.

The stage design and live music added an extra layer of dynamism to the play, enabling the actors to weave in and out of the set, and enhancing the farcical pantomime theme. The revolving set may have been causing some dramas of its own on the opening night, as the Strong opened the second half with a warning that ‘the Twin’ was being temperamental and may stop revolving and instead start smoking. If so, the audience were to make allowances for any disruption to the flow. Fortunately, it seemed to work like a well-oiled carousel and the only smoke was from the dry ice.

Joining the Queensland Theatre cast of ten was Logie award-winning Jessica Tovey, as the shipwrecked-twin, Viola. Disguising herself as Cesario, a young male servant to handsome Duke Orsino (Jason Klarwein) with whom she rapidly falls madly in love. She was a convincing young male torn by her identity crisis as Cesario, unnerved by the unwanted advances of Olivia, whilst struggling to hide her passion for the Duke. There were some comical gems centred around the Viola-Olivia-Orsino love triangle, such as the lustful embarrassment of Viola when Orsino exposes himself to her whilst in the bath, thinking her to be Cesario.

Jessica Tovey and Liz Buchanan

Christen O’Leary is a popular and skilled actress in Queensland theatre. She played the much maligned Malvolia, the maid of heartthrob Olivia (Liz Buchanan) The novel change of the middle-aged male Malvolio to a female lesbian, Malvolia, didn’t quite hit the mark. Her infatuation for her mistress Olivia, although intriguing and played brilliantly by O’Leary, changed the underlying nature of the play. Usually, the male character Malvolio is the antagonist, a vain and pompous steward who is secretly in love with his employer, the much sought-after Olivia. He is teased and eventually humiliated by the plotting pranksters Sir Toby Belch (Bryan Probets), Feste (Sandro Colarelli) and Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Colin Smith). When Malvolio is duped with a false letter into proudly sporting his famous hideous yellow stockings and cross-garters, looking like a fat seagull, in an attempt to woo Olivia, it is the pinnacle of hilarity, causing audiences to choke with laughter. However, when the slim Malvolia strutted her stuff on the baby grand in the yellow stockings, she seemed more sexy and alluring, than silly. The female portrayal of Malvolia seemed to contradict the victimisation of Malvolio, who is considered to be one of Shakespeare’s most complex and fascinating characters.

Probets may be taller and more willowy than you’d usually expect the crude Sir Toby Belch to be, who even when sloshed is full of puns and wit, but he was very entertaining, mixing the ‘Ocker’ Aussie accent with a drunken slur, while Lady Olivia’s maid Maria, played by Kathryn McIntyre, was very amusing and enhanced Sir Belch’s scheming character, causing them to collude and subsequently marry. The fool, Feste (Colarelli) was outstanding, portraying the manipulative and clever fool with a measured camp twist. Feste provides the fourth-wall between the audience and the characters and is “wise enough to play the Fool,” pointing out the follies and flaws of each character.

Twelfth Night has been given a brave modern musical twist by Queensland Theatre with a new score from Finn and some dramatic character changes. On the opening night, the capacity audience gave it a raucous standing ovation. Strong has conceived an alchemical brew of popular music, with a modern interpretation of medieval comedy, to create box office gold.

Twelfth Night plays until May 19. TICKETS

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