Melbourne Shakespeare Company’s unique, lively approach to Shakespeare continues in their summer season, working through mistaken identity and playful plots in Twelfth Night.

Following shipwrecked and separated twins Viola and Sebastian, they trade roles as Viola disguises herself as the servant Cesario to get close to the Duke Orsino, himself obsessed with the grieving Olivia; yet she is instead infatuated with the disguised Viola. Alongside the love dodecahedron, servants scheme amongst each other in a rapid-paced comedic romp.

Reworked pop medleys are scattered throughout the performance as its own layer of narrative, with Alec Steedman’s live score establishing characters and the opening storm before a word is even spoken. It not only strengthens the various subplots, but gives a virbrant personality to every musician and servant that enters the stage.

The entire ensemble’s energy is remarkable, even with the heat climbing to the high thirties in their opening weekend. Despite initial concerns that audibility could be an issue, with the audience scrambling to the patches of shade further from the stage, within minutes projection managed to outweigh the heat. Johnathan Peck’s Malvolio steals every scene he’s in, playing off the prankster ensemble of Maria (Annabelle Tudor), Sir Toby (May Jasper) and Sir Andrew (Mitch Ralston). Kala Gare adds a layer of playfulness to Olivia in her grief, working well with role-swapping twins Viola (Meg McKibbin) and Sebastian (Saxon Gray).

Drawing attention to the sheer volume of dirty jokes within Shakespeare’s text is far from unusual, and works well with the comic, carefree style. However, at times, particually when it becomes more physical, it can feel more out of place as a contemporary performance. Particually when billed as more family-friendly, it can get to a level that feels uncomfortable at best; and, with so many different styles of comedy firing for angle – including many that work with the bawdier text in other ways – there’s far from an abstance of material to get laughs from the audience.

Making the most of Malvern’s Central Park, Karli Laredo’s makes the most of its outdoor setting, with billowing fabric hung throughout the branches and pillars. The cast race between the different platforms, scale trees, and hide amogst the crowd, making the entire park their stage.

Rhiannon Irving’s costume designs, supervised by Constance Lewis, are vibrant, intricate and create a whole new world of Melbourne Shakespeare Company’s unique take. Standouts include Orsino’s elaborate black and gold ensemble, Viola’s patchwork Cesario disguise, and Olivia’s veiled burgundy mourning attire, but all offer fun, creative takes on their characters. Melbourne Shakespeare Company’s trademark name tags (which add both accessibility and humour to the work, especially with mistaken identities) are taken to another level, varying character to character and being worked into the costume itself, adding to the design rather than competing with it. The same could be said for much of the play, whether it be the visuals or the contemporary, carefree soundtrack; nothing about it feels alien to the centuries old script, instead bringing it to life.

Filled with colour, energy and a slapstick flair, Jennifer Sarah Dean and Paul Robertson’s Twelfth Night braves Melbourne’s chaotic weather and wins every time.

Image credit: Burke Photography

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