Twelfth Night re-launches Mannville in style
Bob Eveleigh: On Tuesday, Port Elizabeth’s open-air answer to Cape Town’s Maynardville, Mannville, re-opened in St George’s Park with Twelfth Night.
In March last year, Liverpool’s Everyman Theatre re-opened after a lengthy break with an outstanding production of Twelfth Night, which was chosen by director Gemma Bodinez, because, as she said in one newspaper interview, ” it’s a naughty play, so one can emphasise the comic aspects, to some extent at the expense of the romance; it features an ensemble cast, at the expense of stars (although occasionally, one characterisation stands out), and soon aims at teamwork, which is always fun to direct.”
On Tuesday, Port Elizabeth’s open-air answer to Cape Town’s Maynardville, Mannville, re-opened in St George’s Park, after a three-year closure and much personal administrative endeavour by PE Shakespearean Festival President, Rocky Mann.
A couple of million rand has been spent by the municipality on refurbishment that includes a new lighting and sound tower, with storerooms and a coffee shop, plus upgraded dressing rooms and security fencing.
And director Lesley Barnard, in only her second stab at a Shakespeare play after last year’s fairly straightforward telling of Macbeth, almost seems to be channelling Bodinez, for, after the Festival also chose Twelfth Night as its re-opening presentation, she has delivered to the society, as well as Port Elizabeth’s residents, a staging of the play that is a fast-moving, madcap, joyous celebration in itself.
Switching the locale from the fantasy land Illyria to a Hawaii Islands setting (although retaining the original name), with consequent change in costuming style, replete with Hula Hula dancing girls and a musical soundtrack evoking 1980s TV with its recordings of The Loveboat Theme (sung by Jack Jones – remember the silver-haired star?) and, even better, It Must Be Love, if that sounds that romance is mainly on the agenda, well, forget it, because this Twelfth Night is fun, fun, fun all the way.
Actually all the inescapable love references do, in fact, remind theatregoers that February is the month most notable for St Valentine’s Day but like Bodinez, Barnard ensures that it’s the audience laughs that count in this production.
The play, which she has directed with lightning pace and much character movement for a crisp, just over two hours duration, is all about a nobleman, Orsino (Neville Staples), in love with a young woman Olivia (Emily Bradley), who takes into his service a young man, Cesario (Kelly-Leigh Mucka), without knowing that, for her own reasons, she is, in reality, a shipwrecked comely young woman named Viola.
Very soon, her (his?) advances on behalf of her employer are rebuffed by Olivia, who then starts to fancy Viola (as Cesario), who, herself, begins to fall for Orsino, who still fancies the other woman.
From there the romantic ups and downs play out, helped mainly by the machinations of the visitors and staff at Olivia’s residence: her relative, the always intoxicated Sir Toby Belch (John Keevy), the major-domo Malvolio (Bennie Gerber) and main female servant Maria (Helen Flax).
The mixed up mayhem only gets worse when Viola’s twin brother, Sebastian (James Smith), thinking she has perished in a stormy shipwreck, arrives on the scene and also gets romantically involved with Olivia, who thinks he is Cesario.
Got all that?
I thought not – but it matters not at all, especially when Feste, the singing clown at Olivia’s home, constantly pops up to plague all the characters, who also include Sir Toby’s drinking pal, Sir Andrew Aguecheek (David Emery), and his hanger-on, Fabian (Brendan Rees).
Well, I told you it was an ensemble cast at the outset, didn’t I?
The most amazing thing about this production is the uniformity in acting quality that Lesley Barnard has coaxed from every single one of her players.
Kelly-Leigh Mucka, so appealing as a woman, is totally convincing with her hair up as Cesario, in naval cap and white uniform, while Emily Bradley, playing Olivia in her first PESF lead role, possesses a lissome figure and expressive, attractive face clearly delineating why every male who meets her (including Malvolio and Sir Andrew) falls madly in love with her – a fact that Shakespeare plays to the hilt in the hilarious situations he develops.
Neville Staples, having returned to the stage after a long break to Showtime award-winning effect in the cameo role of Magaldi, in Evita three years ago, plays Orsino, the one genuinely serious character in this piece, and whose impact comes only at the opening and in the closing scenes, with this knowledge obviously firmly in mind.
He has just the right manly presence and his first entrance, in white tropical suit, establishes his motivating role in the proceedings extremely well.
John Keevy (perfectly built for this part), the experienced and the always solid Helen Flax and David Emery, in his best Mannville portrayal to date, team up to extract the maximum laughs out of their treatment of the pompous Malvolio.
In the Liverpool production last year, it was burly veteran actor Nicholas Woodeson, in this role, who stole most of the notices at the expense of his fellow ensemble members.
Frontline critic, Michael Billington, described Woodeson as a “trim, prim fusspot”, and, although clad very differently to the English actor, Bennie Gerber, slim, moustachioed and dressed in pith helmet, long and short khakis (at different times), with cane and – let’s not forget those yellow stockings and red crossed ribbons – also fits Billington’s description to a T. In fact, he evokes memories of Higgins in Magnum PI, so there’s that ’80s influence again …
And, in short, he is nothing short of marvellous in this part, using superior, pompous vocal delivery and, nose averted, arch facial expressions to gain the utmost comic impact from his every line, piece of business, entrance and exit.
Completing the principals in the ensemble, James Smith (although Barnard asks patrons to suspend disbelief as he towers over his twin sister), is effective as the puzzled Sebastian in his Mannville debut and Tim Collier, all athletic, gymnastic exuberance as the clown Feste, is also no slouch when it comes to mouthing his character’s constant comic commentaries on life, while also adding sung vocals to the previously alluded to 1980s hits.
While focusing heavily on the comic interplay, Lesley Barnard has not neglected the fact that this is, after all, a Shakespeare play, and every one of her players, again, speaks their lines with complete understanding, true cadence and respect for the material.
Even down to the supernumerary handmaidens (who also double effectively as hula girls, their routines staged by Bennie Gerber), and minor players like David Roll, as the Sea Captain and Priest, and Leo Hulsman, as Sebastian’s friend, Antonio, speak the dialogue with expression.
Add the hard-working, traditionally black-clad backstage team of three, who rush on and off setting and removing chairs, benches, tables and plenty of glasses (courtesy of Belch and Aguecheek), and Jamie-Lee Reynolds’ imaginative make-up (best expressed in Feste’s look) and the result of all this hard work by director, cast and tech team is that this is truly Shakespeare for the masses.
Even if you haven’t really taken to the Bard on-stage in past years, this is a theatrical romp that could change your mind, and should you never have seen a play by the Bard before, well, this is the perfect way to break your duck.
Having seen countless comedies and tragedies at this venue over many, many years of showgoing, let me say that this Twelfth Night rates as one of the most satisfying Mannville presentations I have ever experienced.
It’s a “Must See”‘, believe me!
TWELFTH NIGHT, directed by Lesley Barnard, technical management, Rocky Mann and Manny Fokos, choreography by Bennie Gerber, presented by the Port Elizabeth Shakespearean Festival at Mannville Open-Air Theatre in St George’s Park running to Saturday, March 7, Mondays to Saturdays, at 7pm.
Article source: http://www.artlink.co.za/news_article.htm?contentID=37467