Review by Rosie Holmes
Watching a Shakespeare play in a leafy park, on a balmy summers evening, with a picnic and a glass of Pimms might just be one of the most quintessentially English things I have ever done, and ‘Shakespeare in the Squares’ aims to bring this experience to many across London. Performing Shakespeare’s work in the open air in quaint gardens and squares across the city, they are back this summer with their 6th production. This year’s show is Twelfth Night, a witty, cheeky take on Shakespeare’s tale that sets the action in the roaring 1920s.
Twelfth Night begins with a shipwreck, in which twins Viola and Sebastian are separated with both believing the other to be dead. Viola disguises herself as a man for protection and falls in love with Orsino, who loves Olivia, but Olivia falls in love with Viola disguised as Cesario. Yes… it’s chaotic, but it's a lot of fun! The text of this comedy of mistaken identity is funny as is, but the direction of this play ensures every laugh is played for and it pays off, in one of the funniest Shakespeare productions I have ever seen.
Director Sioned Jones, sets this production in the jazz age of the 1920s, an interesting but undoubtedly effective choice for this playful and relaxed outdoor setting. The piece stays mostly true to Shakespeare’s original prose, but is littered with innuendo as well as frequent musical interludes making for a fun and fast-paced evening. The musical interludes feature music not from Shakespeare’s contemporaries but 1920s jazz classics from the likes of the Gershwins. It’s certainly a surprising addition but no doubt fun, and adds to the cheekiness of the show, and adds a level of accessibility to Shakespeare’s stories. The music also gave the wonderful cast an opportunity to show off their multitude of talents, for most of the cast not only sang and acted but also played an instrument.
One of the company’s aims is to provide a showcase for talented young theatre practitioners and to introduce audiences to the stars of the future. I certainly believe this to be the case in this production, as the cast are wonderful throughout. Lucy Ireland plays Viola, disguised as Cesario she exudes a boyish charm, yet also manages a wonderfully flirty performance of Gershwin’s ‘Someone To Watch Over Me’ as she displays her talents in singing, saxophone and acting. Carys McQueen appears as Olivia, and effective direction allows her to really show off her comedic talents, as McQueen’s Olivia shows no subtly in displaying her affections for Cesario!
Within the play there is a clear upstairs, downstairs split between the characters, those who serve and those who do not. Here, the downstairs characters provide many of the biggest laughs. Marissa Landy plays the role of the fool, Feste, as a 1920s flapper girl and fully leans into every possible opportunity for a laugh, with continuous payoffs. The 1920s character allows her to be incredibly cheeky as she completely inhabits the role of the ringleader of mischief. The biggest laugh of the evening, though, comes from Richard Emerson’s Malvolio, who appears as an almost caricature of a period drama butler, who wouldn’t be out of place in Downton Abbey. His energy is unrelenting and his comic timing impeccable. Also wonderful are Priscille Grace as Maria, who shows off her vocal talents in a few jazz numbers, and Lee Drage in his assured performance as Atonio.
Fred Thomas plays two roles, swapping between the awkward Sir Andrew Aguecheek, a character reminiscent of a public-school boy you might find in a British sitcom, and the more suave Sebastian. He swaps between the two roles so effectively and effortlessly it took me until Sebastian’s second or third appearance to realise it was the same person. Similarly, Toby Gordon plays both Orsino and Toby Belch, a use of dual roles that perhaps isn’t so effective, although through no fault of Gordon’s. Toby Gordon plays both characters well, often breaking the fourth wall and conversing with the audience, adding another layer of fun and cheekiness to the setting. However, I cannot help but wonder why this choice was made as there is not enough to distinguish between the two characters in terms of costumes, accents, or mannerisms, making the dual role a little confusing. Saying that, I suppose it does play into the theme of mistaken identities!
Set design from Emily Stuart is minimal, encompassing a floral display and bench, although not much more is needed as the backdrop of the beautiful gardens is more than enough to transport audiences to another place. Costume design is effective, particularly clever is Feste’s costume; a flapper dress, make-up, and hair on top, paired with stripy jester-like stockings signifying her role as a fool. Stuart’s costume design must also be commended for helping to provide one of the night’s biggest laughs as Malvolio appears in yellow satin shorts and checkered stockings. An element of the show that could have been improved is the sound – while the cast all projected well, there were times when dialogue was difficult to hear without microphones. That being said, one could argue that the use of microphones could impede the charm and simplicity of the show.
This is a production of Twelfth Night that absolutely leans into its themes of insanity and a hedonistic search for love. With the addition of jazz music and the creation of some larger-than-life, exaggerated characters, this is a show that is extremely witty, and will appeal to a seasoned Shakespeare fan as well as those who may not be so experienced. There are fewer things that could be so enjoyable as to watch this midsummer madness unfold on a lovely summer’s evening.
Shakespeare in the Squares’ production of Twelfth Night continues on its summer tour of parks and gardens until Friday 7th July 2023, tickets can be purchased here- Venues & Tickets - Shakespeare in the Squares
Photos by James Millar