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Twelfth Night – Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre | Review

Directors have been reimagining theatre since the days of Euripides and Sophocles, be they classic plays, musicals from the golden age and Shakespeare. Just last year, Daniel Fish and Jordan Fein at the Young Vic, deconstructed Rodgers and Hammerstein’s bucolic musical Oklahoma and somewhat controversially found the darkness in it – so much so that the theatre was plunged literally into pitch black for parts of the production. Now at the Open Air Theatre in Regent’s Park, director Owen Horsley has taken a deep dive into one of Shakespeare’s most celebrated comedies, Twelfth Night and framed the play so that it magnifies the queer culture that runs throughout with its ambiguity about gender and queer relationships. For example it’s thought that Shakespeare implied that the relationship between Sebastian and Antonio is sexual – in Horsley’s production, there is no doubt. Even the promotional poster for the show hints at the queerness element even though it looks like it might be advertising not Twelfth Night but a show call Bonjour Matelot!

Cast of Twelfth Night. Credit - Richard Lakos.
Cast of Twelfth Night. Credit – Richard Lakos.

Set in a what Horsley calls a queer café by the sea called Olivia, the main protagonists are seen as a queer and slightly odd family. Olivia is a faded cabaret singer a la Judy Garland, Feste a butch, not so foolish fool and Toby Belch is a washed up drag queen – a right motley crew. Basia Bińkowska’s set is more Bauhaus brutalist than seaside café but within it she keeps it simple with just a few tables and chairs but the farcical element utilises the various doors to keep the action going.

Also in the café is a small stage with a quartet of musicians playing louche, languid tunes that are sometimes used as background but also accompany the characters (mainly Feste and Olivia) as they sing a number of songs – this is almost Twelfth Night – The Musical. It’s hard to know what time period this play is set in as the costumes vary from twenties sailors to forties glamour to eighties drag and even modern day suits but that seems to be the intention – it’s timeless and time free.

As for the performances, these are on the whole excellent. Anna Francolini is superb as the brittle and confused Olivia as she channels her inner Garland as well as Bette Davis. Julie Legrand as Feste rasps out a number of the nine songs in the play. Michael Matus is wonderfully over the top as the robustious Toby Belch, a drag queen who’s seen better days and the show is almost stolen by the fey, put upon Richard Can as Malvolio. Matthew Spencer as Andrew Auguecheek is splendid, tripping up on the same stair every time he enters and exits. Evelyn Miller is a delightful Viola and for once, the twins actually look alike with Andro Cowperthwaite her mirror image as Sebastian.

Owen Horsley’s take on Twelfth Night or What You Will (to give it its full title) is an interesting one and certainly has given the play a different and contemporary slant. However, Kwame Kwei-Armah’s 2018 energetic, youthful carnival infused (and much shorter) production of the play at the Young Vic set the bar very high and I’m not sure this production quite reaches those heights.

3 Star Review

Review by Alan Fitter

‘What country, friends, is this?’

At a moonlit cafe surrounded by the sea, Olivia sings a lament to her lost brother, watched on by faded crowd.

When a shipwreck catapults Viola into their world of abandoned festivities, a web of disguise and deception begins. This new injection of life rocks this melancholic community to the core, but can she finally shake them from their languor and get the party started again?

Set against the heat of the Mediterranean sun, Shakespeare’s comedy of mistaken identities is a glorious celebration of love. Directed by Owen Horsley (Henry VI: Rebellion, Wars of the Roses, Royal Shakespeare Company) in a marriage of happiness, nostalgia and riotous partying.

The cast includes: Raphael Bushay (Orsino), Richard Cant (Malvolio), Sally Cheng (Querelle), Andro Cowperthwaite (Sebastian), Anna Francolini (Olivia), Nicholas Karami (Antonio/Captain), Julie Legrand (Feste), Michael Matus (Toby Belch), Evelyn Miller (Viola), Anita Reynolds (Maria), Matthew Spencer (Andrew Aguecheek), Katherine Toy (Valentine/Priest), Jon Trenchard (Fabian/Musical Director), and Harry Waller (Curio/Officer).

Basia Binkowska (Set Designer); Rachel Bown-Williams and Ruth Cooper-Brown for Rc-Annie (Fight and Intimacy Directors); Ryan Dawson Laight (Costume Designer); Kate Godfrey (Voice and Text Director); James Hassett Associate Sound Designer); Daniel Hay-Gordon (Movement Director); Lotte Hines (Casting Director); Cory Hippolyte (Associate Director); Owen Horsley (Director); Sam Kenyon (Composer & Musical Supervisor); Aideen Malone (Lighting Designer); Max Pappenheim (Sound Designer).

Twelfth Night
Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre
3 May to 8 June 2024


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