The Sumner, Southbank Theatre
November 16, 2018

“If music be the food of love, play on,” says Duke Orsino early in Twelfth Night, but music is only one reason why audiences will fall in love with this MTC production of Shakespeare’s romantic comedy. A dream cast, sublime design and assured direction make it a delightful end-of-year romp for theatre enthusiasts and dabblers alike.

Lachlan Woods and Esther Hannaford in MTC’s Twelfth Night. Photo © Jeff Busby

A tale of mistaken identity, cross-dressing and unrequited love, this play is loaded with laughs. A shipwreck separates twins Sebastian and Viola, who disguises herself as a young man, Cesario, and is employed by Orsino as his romantic envoy to Countess Olivia. These three form an unlikely love triangle as Olivia falls for ‘Cesario’ – the spitting image of Sebastian, whose eventual appearance turns the comic confusion up to eleven. Meanwhile, Olivia’s steward, Malvolio, is tricked into thinking she loves him by her maid, Maria, her fool, Feste, and her riotous uncle, Sir Toby Belch, who is also manipulating the hapless Sir Andrew Aguecheek.

Apart from a few minor opening night wobbles with lines, the cast were a joy to behold. Esther Hannaford (Helpmann Award-winning star of Beautiful: The Carole King Musical) interpreted Viola with understated humour, being measured in her manliness and musings about her predicament. A welcome approach for such a pivotal role.

Christie Whelan Browne. Photo © Jeff Busby

In contrast, the luminous Christie Whelan Browne (seen earlier this year in MTC’s An Ideal Husband) didn’t hold back as Olivia, injecting lots of modern inflections into her lines and so willing to let herself go with physical humour that she fell over during a scene transition.

However, the production’s undoubted king of physical comedy is Frank Woodley (of Lano and Woodley fame), whose Sir Andrew is a nervous ninny of the highest order. His extended drunken entry through a door, a brilliant combination of timing and hyper-flexible ankles, was enthusiastically applauded, but Woodley was a hoot throughout, often bringing his rapier to comic life and screaming like a girl a couple of times.

Frank Woodley, Richard Piper, Colin Hay and Russell Dykstra. Photo © Jeff Busby

MTC veteran Richard Piper relished the role of Sir Toby, emphasising his bawdy confidence in word and deed in a performance that radiated energy. With delicious disregard for his own dignity, Russell Dykstra (whose many stage and screen appearances include Rake) hammed it up as the ridiculously pompous Malvolio, while Tamsin Carroll (fresh from West End success) revealed the subtle comedy in Maria’s acerbic lines by playing this determined character fairly straight.

Not least among the dream cast is Colin Hay. Best known as frontman of 80s band Men at Work, but enjoying considerable under-the-radar success as a modern-day troubadour in the decades since, he leads the production’s musical ensemble as Feste. Singing and playing lute with an easy warmth, Hay seemed slightly uncomfortable as an actor, but a sardonic style and heightened native Scottish accent meant he held his own among this strong cast.

Colin Hay. Photo © Jeff Busby

The rest of which, including Lachlan Woods, playing Orsino with an Elizabethan rock star’s self-importance, gave sterling support in roles less blessed with comedy gold. A handful of minor players doubled as musicians, often popping up with period-friendly instruments such as guitar, tambourine and harpsichord. They played incidental music, and numerous songs composed for this production by Kate Miller-Heidke and Keir Nuttall that were part Shakespearian sonnet, part contemporary indie wistfulness, and integral to this Twelfth Night’s charm.

The musicians sometimes popped up quite literally, raised from the bowels of the stage on a lift. This and several other mechanical effects, including a door lowered from above, and several minimalist lamps-turned-trees unobtrusively moved around to delineate space, make an essentially simple set effortlessly versatile.

Christie Whelan Browne, Anthony Harkin, Lachlan Woods, Alex Steedman and Roderick Cairns. Photo © Jeff Busby

Designed by Gabriela Tylesova, both set and costumes are extremely easy on the eye, evoking a 17th century Adriatic beach palace through an elegant palette of cream, camel and subdued gold. Black is also a strong element among the costumes, which are stunning riffs on elaborate Elizabethan style.

Director Simon Phillips has certainly been blessed with an abundance of talent for this final MTC production for 2018, but he has moulded it with an assured, light hand. A touch of modernity, and humour that’s neither too low nor over the top, makes this Twelfth Night a joyful reminder of why we still love Shakespeare.

Melbourne Theatre Company’s Twelfth Night is at The Sumner, Southbank Theatre until January 5