This production opens on a novel note. A drama group is warming up on stage when something goes amiss. A last minute hitch forces them to cancel the planned performance and resort to staging a standby play Twelfth Night. They apologise for the late change, the lack of sets and limited costuming, but this is theatre and the show must go on, no matter what show, nor how austere the trappings.
They also swap the scripted order of the opening scenes. So first we have the shipwrecked Viola, vowing to play the part of a man to assist the love struck Duke Orsino win the hand of Olivia. Only then do we actually meet Orsina and hear those famous scene setting lines:
If music be the food of love, play on;
Give me excess of it, that, surfeiting,
The appetite may sicken, and so die.
In Twelfth Night everything is turned on its head and little is what it seems. The plot revolves around young Viola, who in the guise of Cesario befriends the Duke and pleads his case to the mourning Olivia whose father and brother have recently died.
Unknown to Viola, her twin Sebastian has also survived the wreck and reached the kingdom of Illyria. She falls in love with Orsino, who thinks her a man; Olivia falls in love with Cesario (Viola), thinking her a man; Sebastian is mistaken for Cesario and she for him; and there we have the fulcrum on which the comedy swings.
Viola is a wonderful role well played by Nicoletta Panebianco. Her face is animated, she has real presence, and her performance illuminates the stage.
The other feature performance comes from Shakespeare veteran Paul Sherman with his portrayal of Malvolio steward to Olivia and the victim of a malicious jest. Malvolio is misled into believing that his mistress, Olivia, is secretly in love with him. When he responds to the suggestion, his life is ruined. He is thought mad and thrown into prison.
Sherman knows the play well. In 1966 he played Feste in 88 performances, touring Queensland with the Young Elizabethans. He has brought great insight to the role and adds an extra dimension to the production. The play is most engrossing when Malvolio is involved.
A highlight of the casting is the selection of the twins, Viola and Sebastian (Julian Curtis). They have a strong resemblance and are quite believable as brother and sister. Director Fred Wessely should also be congratulated for casting the delightful Susan Cridland as Feste, the fool, a traditionally male role that she handles with remarkable flair and whimsy.
The quality of this no frills production of Twelfth Night is a little uneven though there are many highpoints, particularly when Viola, Malvolio and Feste are involved. Perhaps opening night nerves contributed to a sluggish start for it seemed to become more energized the longer it went.