Review: Twelfth Night (Bard in the Botanics)
Updated: Jun 2
It’s funny to think that open-air performances have once again become the main way to see in-person theatre in Britain. The “default” theatre experience we have come to expect (darkened auditorium, hushed audience, bright lights flooding the stage) didn’t take over until the mid-to-late nineteenth century. Open-air performances never went away, but it seems fitting to return to something as traditional as Bard in the Botanics’ Twelfth Night, directed by Gordon Barr. The six-strong cast performs the classic tale of a lost sibling and a love triangle in the cool summer sunshine. Were it not for the wooden squares separating each household, one could almost forget the long, long wait it has been since most of us have been to the theatre.
As one would expect, a small scale production performing a Shakespeare play means most of the cast are playing multiple roles. For an audience that is familiar with Twelfth Night, this won’t present a problem. For newcomers, the costume changes and transitions between characters aren’t distinctive enough to hold your hand through the performance. The script works well around the small cast, but even so, some of the audience may be left baffled, particularly since the play in question is thematically concerned with mistaken identities and confusion.
Photo Credit: Tommy Ga-Ken Wan
Most of that confusion revolves around the character of Viola, played by Stephanie McGregor. She does justice to a character with conflicting emotions; she’s melancholy over the loss of her brother, visibly lovestruck around Count Orsino (Jennifer Dick), and stubborn and flirtatious around Olivia (Nicole Cooper). Indeed Viola and Olivia's scenes together are some of the highlights of the performance. Cooper portrays vanity and awkwardness in equal measure in the role, which contrasts with the Dunning-Kruger-like foolishness of her second role as Sir Andrew Agucheek. Her performance is marred only slightly by her over-egged line delivery. It is not clear whether her shouting is meant to reflect the insecurity of her characters, or her lack of faith in the acoustics of the grassy knoll on which the audience are sat.
Not lacking in confidence to any degree is Adam Donaldson as Sir Toby Belch. As a party-loving drunkard who is accused of dragging down the respectability of Olivia’s household, Donaldson strikes the right balance between being a good time and a pest. It makes him a perfect rival to the classic camp villainy Alan Steele's Malvolio. As an antagonist who gets rather more comeuppance than he probably deserved, trying to avoid ending the performance on a bitter note presents a challenge. It is a credit to both Steele and Barr that Malvolio’s misfortune does not take away from the silly sweetness of the show's final moments. The combination of the light-hearted direction that never lets a joke go to waste, and the outdoors setting, create a playful detachment that reminds the audience that none of the misfortunes are to be taken seriously.
Photo Credit: Tommy Ga-Ken Wan
That same sense of detachment is in the design. The aesthetic has a jumbled 1920s theme, the costumes are a mix from many decades, and the set suggests the whole story takes place in the backstage of a theatre, a fact that is never referenced. None of it overpowers the eye or distracts from the cast's performances. It does not provide any context for the story, but nor does it weigh it down.
The most noticeable disconnect is between the production and the pandemic. That is not to say it is unsafe; every precaution is in place. After such a long wait audiences may be expecting an adaptation stuffed with references, similar to those that seemed to creep into so many productions following the Brexit vote in 2016. Here, however, they are few and far between. Even the social distancing on stage would be barely noticeable before COVID-19.
Bard in the Botanics’ Twelfth Night works as a delicious distraction. It is a piece that focuses on its connection between the audience and the performers, which after a year of being offered all sorts of digital supplements is the only thing we have not had access to. In this first wave of in-person performances, this is what audiences crave. Conceptually there is nothing that pushes boundaries or that will come as a surprise. Despite that, or perhaps because of that, there’s no better way to describe this production than a breath of fresh air. Four stars.
Whispers from the Crowd:
"It was a fabulous production"
"I loved the way they involved the audience. We were invited in on all the jokes, they broke the fourth wall, yeah, loved it. And Malvolio! He's got better legs than me!"