Twelfth Night is one the great underrated Shakespearian plays: a mesmerising romantic comedy that is also sweetly queer.

The Bell Shakespeare Company’s latest version succeeds as a beautifully acted chunk of theatre, even if the production design and costuming prove senseless and irritating. But first to the plot.

Twelfth Night concerns twins Viola and Sebastian (above) who are separated in a shipwreck and believe each other dead. To survive in a strange land, Viola dresses as a man (Cesario), only to fall in love with her master Orsino (Julian Garner -“ who readers might recall played one of Ari’s tricks in Head On).

Orsino’s very, very fond of Cesario, but lusts for Olivia (Genevieve Hegney), and entrusts Cesario to woo Olivia on his behalf. Naturally, Olivia finds the tomboyish messenger irresistible.

Concurrently Olivia’s uncle Sir Toby Belch (John Batchelor) plots with his pals to humiliate Malvolio (Bille Brown), Olivia’s uptight steward.

The actors put in perfectly pitched performances: Bille Brown’s Malvolio is pompous enough to be funny, but passionate enough to be pitiable. The fool Feste is also consistently funny, played with eccentric flair by Jonathan Hardy. Be assured: Feste is one of those wretched Shakespearian roles that on paper is only allegedly hilarious. Amateur Festes frequently fester.

The big minus, which requires a certain tunnel vision on behalf of audiences, is the set and costumes. A stage within a stage tells us this is theatre (we know), while the opaque blue plastic wall suggests the play’s seaside locale (perhaps).

While it’s cute to hear the show’s big line if music be the food of love, play on spoken by a Duke listening to an iPod, a number of other anachronistic gags rankle. Director David Freeman is enjoying an impressive international career, but this outing reeks of university theatre indulgences.

See it for the performances.

Twelfth Night is showing at the Playhouse, Sydney Opera House, until 6 November. Phone 9250 7777.

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