What’s the best way to spend a spring evening in Brisbane? Outdoors, for a start. Laughing outdoors is even better. Laughing outdoors with a great band and some of the best entertainment ever written is a bit too much to ask, right? Well, luckily you don’t even need to ask, Queensland Shakespeare Ensemble’s Twelfth Night at the Roma Street Parklands Ampitheatre is already answering. It serenades its audience with warmth and good spirit, not to mention plenty of slapsticky nonsense.
If you still need convincing, there’s a couple of rowdy swordfights thrown in (with good thick swords that make lots of noise), some mischief-makers silhouetted behind screens, and even the chance to hear where the phrase “some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them” comes from. For the uninitiated, its meaning is saucier than you’d think.
They’re a talented bunch, the QSE cast, also turning their hands to acoustic guitar, bass, violin, drums, clarinet and keyboards. These are heard well before the performance itself begins, immediately setting a laid back and earthy tone for the evening. The mellow strumming guitar mingles agreeably with the dusky backdrop of the parklands and Wickham Terrace beyond. It is only a minor quibble that the song just preceding the first speech perhaps ends up being a little too long.
Music is mentioned repeatedly in Shakespeare’s text, most famously in the opening “If music be the food of love, play on” speech of Duke Orsino’s. And play on the QSE does, the loping bass woven into scene changes, the pure folky voices harmonising in the background, the plucked guitar gentle and wise, the violin cheekily sweet as the hapless Malvolio is marched into his cage. When he then begins whimpering, the band really swings, pointing up that this is all in good fun, that he’s not a bad fellow, but has made himself an easy target for such pranks. Elsewhere, a set piece with barbershop vocals draws a grateful ovation from the amused audience. It’s all terrific fun.
As much as anything, it’s the music that keeps the production bouncing along, reinforcing the appropriately brisk pace set by director Rob Pensalfini. Apart from certain periods during the first half when the right hand side of the stage is favoured too much, the action roams freely across the entire space.
One of Shakespeare’s comedies, Twelfth Night offers up a great ensemble of characters, most of them servants. The action begins after a shipwreck on the coast of Illyria, with some of its survivors walking right into the romantic complications and misunderstandings that are native to its shores. Happy to simply let the characters loose to toy with one another (with the serious ones like Malvolio receiving most of such attention), the storyline is in itself not really the focus.
The warm and inventive peformances lie at the heart of this show. Rob Pensalfini (yes, he of the director’s chair, and guitar as well) is boisterously good as Sir Toby Belch, while Stephen Mackie makes a campy Sir Andrew Aguecheek. Together, these drinking buddies are a great double-act, the burly old rogue and the nerdy boffin with delusions of masculine grandeur. Joining forces with them to lay a trap for Gavin Edwards’ haughty Malvolio is Andrea Carne’s twinkle-eyed maid Maria. A little man with pride and contempt befitting the lord he would wish to be, Malvolio is persuaded to believe that the lady he serves, Olivia, is in love with him. What follows is hilarious.
Softly filtering through the Brisbane night air, Jason Glenwright’s lighting here does what it needs to and lets the action and accompanying music carry the audience along. Similarly, the costumes and set are sincere in their simplicity, splashes of colour lending just enough elegance to support the big characters. This is not a modernised Shakespeare, nor does it have a slavish traditional feel. No specific period is suggested as such, but instead the timeless archetypes of servants and masters are celebrated in a production where the setting is enjoyment itself. The main message of this production, then? If anything, it is that love and grief and conceit (to name but a few) make people do ridiculous things. And that these ridiculous things are funny. Touching as well, and all the more funny for being so. Particularly hilarious are the ridiculous results when mischief is added in. As much as anyone, the audience is part of the mischief in this production, and very much guilty by association.
“I’ll be revenged on the whole pack of you,” vows a seething Malvolio as he exits just before the end of the play. In this fine production, the whole pack do very well indeed, and revenge is not nearly as sweet or as much fun as what provokes it.