by Sophie Pretorius
If anyone were looking for a friendly way to introduce a person, or persons, to Shakespeare, then Twelfth Night, from 29 July to 28 August, at Kew Gardens, is the perfect opportunity. The play itself is one of Shakespeare’s more immediately comprehensible and funny texts, and the cast plays into the open-hearted clowning of the play, endearingly.
The action takes part on a simple but effective set by Ceci Calf and is directed by Peter Hamilton Dyer, an actor himself, who’s directorial CV (encompassing the likes of Wolf Hall, Downton Abbey, Doctor Who) is long and impressive. The play is produced by Sixteenfeet Productions, who, since 2008, have been mounting theatre in London’s parks and green spaces, with a special focus on actor musicianship, and this production is no exception.
Twelfth Night, which opens with Duke Orsino’s unforgettable, ‘if music be the food of love, play on…’, might be called the most musical of Shakespeare’s plays (though As You Like It, contains more of what Christopher R. Wilson calls ‘character music’) and thus lends itself to this manner of treatment. The show takes on something of the air of a musical. A live band, comprised entirely of actors in the play, accompanies the six character songs Twelfth Night boasts. The band also provides a half-hour of pre-show music. This includes a set of 12 covered songs, all penned in or around the 1930s, including ‘I get along without you very well’, ‘Mack the Knife’, and my personal favourite of the show, Kalungi Ssebandeke (Feste)’s lively version of ‘Is you is or is you ain’t my baby’. The songs swing, and the performers do too: the cast give a delightful impression that they wouldn’t mind if you got up and danced. Though many in the audience bopped along, none the night I attended were brave enough to try.
The cast are well-rehearsed and demonstrate considerable musical skill throughout. Jonathan Tafler (pictured) is a traditional and excellent Malvolio. He, along with Comfort Fabian (Maria), Lewis Goody (Sir Andrew Aguecheek) and Steve Watts (Sir Toby Blech), do real justice to the very funny and infamous cross-gartered yellow stocking farce.
The stage itself is close enough to the gates and toilets that you do not feel marooned, but far enough into the gardens to feel enclosed by greenery. It is also wheelchair accessible and well-lit after dark. The ticket, £46.50 per non-member adult, £17 for non-member children (under 2s go free), gets you into Kew Gardens at 17:30, two hours before the start time of 19:30; a great treat, as the general public have largely left by then. This allows for a long walk and is quiet enough to build up an appetite for food and noise.
If you are lucky enough to attend with a prepared individual, one prepared in that very specific way, which a picnic demands, you might also have a delightful meal on the grass. I was lucky enough to recline while eating stone fruit and cream, on a warm and clear summer’s eve, serenaded and amused by friendly faces; it is perfectly diverting.