“If music be the food of love, play on.” The immortal lines mark the beginning of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, and in Original Impact’s latest production at the Blue Elephant Theatre, have never rang more true. Director Sam Dunstan’s take on the classic tale of crossdressing and mistaken identity is given a distinctly teenage makeover here, with the play opening to the tropical beats of Ed Sheeran’s ‘Shape of You’ and the cast clad in youthful, summery attire, reimagining the coastal setting of Ilyria as a beachside party town, with most of the action taking place in the snazzy Elephant Inn club.
Original Impact never pretends to be the RSC, but instead, have crafted a version of Twelfth Night that’s accessible to the YouTube/social media savvy generation of today. The various songs performed live by the cast are slightly jarring when sung and played alongside Shakespearean English, but are overall well done, with fiercely current hits from Calvin Harris’ ‘Feel So Close’ to Lady Gaga’s ‘Perfect Illusion’. Andi Jashari, who also plays Duke Orsino, was particularly impressive with his beatboxing skills, adding a steady beat and urgency to the numbers he performed in.
Twelfth Night completely eschews the notion of Shakespeare as a posh, incomprehensible script. Although the cast still sticks to the original language and manages to maintain the lyricism of its iambic pentameter, they choose to gloss over some of the details and delivery in favour of the visual potential Shakespeare provides. Much of the performance hinges on over the top outrageous humour, playing up the sexual elements of the script and delivering exaggerated, laugh out loud performances.
Joshua Jewkes’ Sir Toby Belcher and Dinos Psychogios’ Sir Andrew Aguecheek play the typical fools in Shakespearean comedy, transformed into tropical shirted frat brothers, lovably annoying as they unabashedly wreak drunken havoc and flirt incessantly with the women, and even taking some literal pratfalls in feats of physical comedy. But it is the fool herself, Feste, played by Sian Eleanor Green that really steals the show. Clad in loose floral patterned sweats and a peach-coloured sleeveless top, Feste’s attire suggests complete freedom of movement, and freedom she performs with her expressive face and irreverent songs, even taking Sirs Toby and Andrew’s annoyances to new heights when she leads them in an off key karaoke of Whitney Houston’s ‘I Will Always Love You’. Later on, Alexandria Anfield’s Maria joins in the fun, and her physicality and line delivery is perfectly in line with Maria’s acerbic wit.
Twelfth Night is a play that’s very reliant on levels, where the action and comedy is meant to ramp up to an impressive climax at the end. Original Impact’s production might have peaked a little early, hitting its high point at the beginning of the second act. This was largely due to the comedic talents of Eve Niker’s Olivia and Timothy Weston’s Malvolio. Initially the most serious characters, the transformation into comic ones becomes all the more apparent and the contrast played for great comic effect. Eve Niker’s frigid Olivia gives way to a woman with passion unbound after falling head over heels with Katie Turner’s Viola-as-Cesario, brilliantly and aggressively flirting with her as she paces her come on to comic perfection – starting with a playful stroking of the thighs before literally throwing herself at Viola-as-Cesario, nearly falling over in the process. Later on, Niker delivers a priceless look of shock when Cesario’s true identity is revealed, wonderfully contrasted with Andi Jashari’s equally impressive look of pure glee at the same reveal.
The MVP of the night of course, remains Timothy Weston as Malvolio. Malvolio’s smart, suited serious appearance is betrayed by his wearing a polka-dotted nightrobe midway through act one, and easily tricked by Feste, Sirs Toby and Andrew and Maria, makes a glorious, high-heeled, yellow stockinged re-appearance in Act 2, showing off a superhuman sense of balance as he prances around the stage and thrusts himself upon a shocked Olivia, whose reactions are almost as fun to watch as Weston himself.
With such high strung comedic moments at the play’s midpoint, it’s difficult to top those later on. Despite never hitting the same highs that Olivia and Malvolio provide, the rest of the play moves along at a frenetic pace, bombarding the audience with lewd jokes and an explosion of reveals. Of the cast members, Katie Turner probably best handles the Shakespearean language, and her performance as the quick witted and exasperated Viola anchors the entire performance, emanating charm while giving off an air of independence, while James Morley as twin brother Sebastian, despite not getting as much time onstage, still manages to leave a small impact, and similarly, has a clear, crisp delivery of his lines.
Although possessing only minimal set pieces, there’s something endearing about the simplicity of the entire set-up, and a likeability to how sincere the production feels. Shakespeare has never been easy to pull off, and productions that attempt to re-contextualize it while retaining the language often feel a little off. But Original Impact have managed to create a charming and accessible version of Twelfth Night that throws its buckets of humour right in your face. This was a fun production that absolutely indulges in its own chaos, spreading the cast’s indomitable sense of fun throughout the entire audience and truly bringing out the joy of Shakespeare.
Twelfth Night plays at the Blue Elephant Theatre from 27 April to 6 May (Wed-Sat performances). Tickets available here