'Twelfth Night' review – an inventive gender-bending celebration of love in all its forms

Read our review of Shakespeare's comedy Twelfth Night, now in performances at Regent's Park Open Air Theatre to 8 June.

Aliya Al-Hassan
Aliya Al-Hassan

It’s amazing to think that Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night was the first play ever staged at the Open Air Theatre back in 1932. Director Owen Horsley’s new version of the story of mistaken identities, unrequited love, gender-swapping and drunken revelry is a nostalgic celebration of love in all its forms.

Horsley sets the action within a seaside café named after Olivia, thoughtfully designed by Basia Bińkowska. It is a relaxed and inclusive space, but the fun has now faded. Olivia’s lost brother’s remains appear in an urn, decorated with a bejewelled eye as though he is still watching everyone.

There are some creative ideas in this production that feel fresh, drawing on grief, love and emphasising the queer themes contained within the text. This version really leans into the theory that gender is not binary. The role of friendship is also explored, examining both the families we have and those we choose.

There is more than a little frisson between Olivia and Viola, while Nicholas Karami’s hot-blooded Antonio is clearly and passionately in love with Andro Cowperthwaite’s Sebastian. This latter queer dynamic is maintained by Horsley rejecting the usual heteronormative ending – instead, Sebastian immediately (and rather cruelly) abandons Olivia after their marriage for Antonio.

Evelyn Miller’s purposeful Viola remains more conventional: incisive and determined, with her pain bubbling just under the surface. As Olivia, Anna Francolini almost brings the house down with such performative wallowing in her own misery, then rapidly jumping to overt flirtation with Cesario. She also has a standout singing voice.

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Anita Reynolds has great fun as a mischievous Maria, now the bar’s manager. An assured Julie Legrand plays a gender-flipped Feste, and Rafael Bushay is egotistical as Orsino, showing unknowing sexual ambiguity in his love for Cesario.

Toby Belch is now a fabulous drag queen played up outrageously by Michael Matus. He is joined by Matthew Spencer’s equally funny Andrew Aguecheek, dressed like an insurance salesman in a toupée.

However, it is Richard Cant’s haughty Malvolio who is the most interesting character. He remains a self-righteous killjoy, but ends this production with more of the audience’s sympathy. Despite his flaws, the mockery of him seems particularly cruel and unnecessary.

Ryan Dawson Laight, who masterminded the wonderful costumes in last season’s La Cage aux Folles, uses a muted palette for most of the cast (including naval uniforms and a blend of non-period-specific modern dress). This contrasts with the theatrical glitz of Olivia, especially her overdramatic mourning clothes, and Toby’s many outfits, including one that makes him look like a golden party popper. Malvolio’s yellow stockings are also a sight to behold.

Aideen Malone’s atmospheric lighting acts as useful scene punctuation, creating a magical sight as the daylight fades, all accompanied by Sam Kenyon’s charming jazz and blues-inflected composition.

It’s a shade long at three hours, but this inventive production is a thought-provoking delight.

Twelfth Night is at Regent's Park Open Air Theatre through 8 June. Book Twelfth Night tickets on London Theatre.

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Photo credit: Twelfth Night (Photos by Richard Lakos)

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