“If music be the food of love, play on”. These words by Shakespeare are perhaps some of his most iconic in a long list of perfect and beautiful phrases. They have lasted across time, and in this, the 400th year since Shakespeare’s death it is only fitting that these words be spoken again in honour of the late, great Bard.
The Queensland Shakespeare Ensemble (QSE) have a somewhat short history, they have only been an official company for fifteen years. Nevertheless they have been providing Brisbane with quality Shakespearean productions during that time, I think we’re quite lucky to have them. Twelfth Night or What You Will, is one of Shakespeare’s most beloved comedies. While I have yet to read or see the entirety of his oeuvre, Twelfth Night is one play that has stuck in my mind for quite some time. I’ve seen other local productions and BBC and American film adaptations of the story and find it really resonates with me.
The story is as follows: The scene is set with the Duke Orsino, pining for the love of a woman. Next, the scene of a shipwreck, where a young woman named Viola is seen rescued and set ashore in the country of Illyria – where the Duke holds his estate.
Viola grieves for her twin brother, thought drowned and seeks work in the household of the Duke, disguised as a eunuch. Viola now Cesario, falls in love with the Duke Orsino but is employed by him to woo his lady love the Countess Olivia, instead, who in turn falls for her, thinking her a man. Along the way the audience encounters the people in both houses, but especially the servants and other inhabitants in the Countess’ estate – her uncle Toby, his friend Sir Andrew Aguecheek, Maria and the cold, callous Malvolio. In this intense love triangle, our would-be lovers find themselves.
With plenty of laughs, slapstick and suspense, the actors in this QSE did a superb job. This production of Twelfth Night was directed by QSE’s Artistic Director, and the play’s Feste, Rob Pensalfini.
He performed admirably in his role but it is his casting choices, original music and directive vision that really stole the show. Each of the actors were so perfectly cast it made the performance come alive and really got the heart of what Shakespeare truly was. Not the stuffy or toffee-nosed playwright some people make him out to be, but a man with a great sense of humour, intellect and wisdom that he portrayed in his works.
This play is rife with bawdy sex jokes, clever puns and lashings of sauciness that the Queensland Shakespeare Ensemble interpreted well. It made it a whole lot easier to find new jokes and lines to enjoy that I had not previously understood. This production was also an interesting mix of gender-bent with some female actors cast in men’s roles and some men, taking on women’s “weeds”.
This, to me, was also very much in the spirit of the Bard. It also gave an opportunity for those actors to demonstrate their versatility. While they all were good, my absolute favourites had to be Colin Smith as the sullen and set-upon Malvolio, Paige Poulier as the forever drunken Sir Toby Belch and Chris Vaag as the endearing Sir Andrew Aguecheek.
Smith’s Malvolio was perhaps one of the funniest I’ve ever seen. He fit the role like a glove with his slicked back hair and stern countenance. The best moment was when he tried to smile. Poulier and Vaag made the perfect team of unfortunates. With Sir Toby plotting to keep Sir Andrew close, I assumed for his purse, and Sir Andrew with his cowardly antics really got the audience laughing. This whole production was really well fleshed out, full of fun and definitely worth sitting in the chilly Roma Street Parklands. Blankets, however were thankfully on hand.
Company: Queensland Shakespeare Ensemble
Venue: Roma Street Parklands Amphitheatre, Brisbane
Season: 24 August – 8 September 2016
For more of Eric Scott’s writings on theatre, check out Absolute Theatre
David Edwards is the editor of The Blurb and a contributor on film and television