It seemed entirely fitting that the opening of Shakespeare’s crazy, mixed-up comedy about fools and foolish behaviour, should have to compete with the insanity of real life.
Hidden away in the rose-scented gardens of St Paul’s Church, Covent Garden, a diverse audience were prepared to be spirited away to an enchanted land with Iris Theatre’s splendid promenade production of Twelfth Night.
But the cast had intrusive company. Overhead was the constant buzzing of a circling police helicopter taking part in anti-terrorism exercises and, just outside the gates to the Actors’ Church, was a street entertainer and a large group of noisy onlookers enjoying his clownish antics.
Outdoor theatre is a hit or miss affair, usually depending on the weather. Last night was idyllic. We enjoyed a hot summer’s night, the air heady with the perfume from dozens of rose bushes surrounding each small garden set, watching one of the Bard’s wittiest comedies.
Twelfth Night throws up some classic characters, from the carousing and loutish Sir Toby Belch and his empty-headed foppish drinking chum, Sir Andrew Aguecheek, to the vain, ambitious and pompous Malvolio.
We have the hard-working Viola who dresses as a boy and finds herself caught in a convoluted and awkward love triangle.
And, while the nobility play out a futile courtship, there’s love in the air from the most unlikeliest of people.
It takes a while for Twelfth Night to get into its stride with short early scenes causing the audience to shift locations in rapid succession.
I’m really not sure about the success of promenade theatre. St Paul’s Church is a lovely location, and director Vik Sivalingham makes the most of its attractive grounds, but the story loses its impetus every time we have to stop and move location.
And it is fine for youngsters to sit on benches that are just a couple of inches off the ground but they’re uncomfortable and unliked by older theatre-goers. Disabled visitors can also find it difficult to access each performance space.
But the production settles down with the arrival of its comedy twosome, the wide-eyed, effete Aguecheek and Robert Maskell’s excellent belching, quaffing and coarse-mannered Sir Toby.
Henry Wyrley-Birch’s super Sir Andrew is a clot of the first order and his child-like innocence perfectly complements the uncouth, worldly, black sheep Belch.
Trying to keep this unruly pair in order is the rather chaste looking (for a serving wench) Maria (a spirited performance from Anne-Marie Piazza).
Watching them, with increasing disdain, is the steward Malvolio who foolishly berates them for their behaviour.
There’s a telling scene when Belch reminds the overbearing Malvolio, in no uncertain terms, that he may be a drunk but he is still a nobleman and his superior.
And from then on the wooing and complex love story between the noble Orsino, Lady Olivia, Viola/Cesario and her twin, Sebastian, takes a bit of a back seat as Belch, Sir Andrew and Maria plot Malvolio’s humiliation and downfall.
Tony Bell, who is an experienced Shakespearean actor, working for The RSC, Propeller and the Old Vic, gives a commanding turn as the supercilious steward.
Malvolio’s attempt to crack a (rare) smile looked like he was trying, unsuccessfully, to break wind while the stocking scene saw the peacock steward left tortured and distressed.
The imperious servant’s behaviour swung wildly from masterly to wretched as he got his come-uppance but I couldn’t help but feel for the man who had been broken by cruel and heartless taunts.
Pepter Lunkuse makes a convincing “boy” as Cesario while Olivia Onyehara is a conflicted and flirtatious Lady Olivia. Unusually for Shakespeare, the lady is not for turning when it comes to picking a lover and it’s refreshing to meet a strong, independent-minded female character.
Twelfth Night plays at St Paul’s Church, Covent Garden, until July 24.
William Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, a crazy comedy of love and foolishness, is beautifully played out in the idyllic surroundings of St Paul’s, the actors’ church, in Covent Garden.