Geraint Price packs his poncho and heads to the park to review Storyhouse’s production of Twelfth Night.
Ten years ago is a time that most people are still trying to forget. The financial crisis that battered and bloodied the world didn’t leave Chester unscathed, either: plans for the Northgate Development were shelved, including what was to become Storyhouse.
Rather than let the dream die, the decision was made to create a makeshift theatre in the park.
And so the Grosvenor Park Open Air Theatre was born. The two productions (Much Ado About Nothing and Hercules) were seen by 6,000 theatregoers and before long the event became a firm fixture of the summer season.
Although the event has grown in numbers, the staging and setting has been kept simple – an absence of amplification and complicated scenery means more money available to create a large repertory company of performers.
Indeed the setting wouldn’t have looked out of place during Shakespeare’s time. The tiered, circular open air construction has been simplified over the years, with the raked wooden giving way to a floor-level wood chip arena. A valerian cover was added in 2014, although mercifully it wasn’t needed on press night.
Twelfth Night is one of a pair of comedies written by Shakespeare involving twins (the other being The Comedy of Errors), although as the production notes point out, emotionally darker. Shakespeare’s twin son, Hamnet, died 1596 and Viola and Sebastian are torn asunder by a storm – and Viola, believing her brother dead, subsequently disguises herself as a man (Cesario), in the process keeping her lost sibling’s spirit alive.
However, any sense of melancholia is absent in this production. After a shipwreck, the twins Viola (Whitney Kehinde) and Sebastian (Marc Benga) each believe the other has died.
Viola, with the help of a captain, disguises herself as a boy and enters the service of Duke Orsino of Illyria (Stephen Elliot). He’s in love with Olivia (Sarah-Jane Potts), but she’s not having a bar of it, so Viola, disguised as the boy Cesario, is sent a woo-ing. Olivia, of course, takes a shine to Cesario and mayhem ensures.
For extra measure, Sir Toby Belch, Olivia’s uncle, attempts to inveigle his drinking buddy Sir Andrew Aiguecheek (Mitesh Soni) into wooing Olivia, too.
Cue sword fights with kids’ inflatable weapons, an incredible yoga demonstration by Samuel Collings as Malvolio (victim of a cruel joke involving forged letters, unrequited love, oh, and yellow stockings) and a race between the principal cast to win the award for most outrageous performance (in my mind, it was a tie).
The revelry wasn’t restricted to the performance area, with certain members of the audience noisily wiring into picnics, champagne and Twelfth Slice pizzas and drowning out some of the quieter cast members.
Thankfully the same can’t be said of the weather – rain stopped 15 minutes before our performance started and recommenced 30 minutes after.
Twelfth Night runs until 24 August. Tickets here.
Photos also courtesy of Mark McNulty.