A priest walks into a garden play: review of Merton Floats’ Twelfth Night

It’s taken me since January 23rd when I submitted my Shakespeare portfolio to be able to face the bard again. But the Merton Garden Play called, and I answered, and that’s how I found myself seated in front of literature written before 1830 for the first time since I finished my finals. 

I’m going to be honest, the best I know of Twelfth Night is the iconic 2006 rom-com She’s the Man. It’s one of those plays that has quite managed to escape my notice, despite having studied Shakespeare at school, college and now university since I was 11. But as Merton’s production proved, it’s a play that should not escape yours. A night of raucous comedy forms the perfect midterm escape, as the Merton Floats produce Shakespeare with a touch of the eighties and live music in tow.

Speaking of the live music, opening the play with the dulcet tones of “Paris” by the 1975 was not exactly what I expected from a Shakespeare production, but was a welcome surprise nonetheless. Jonny Rugg on guitar and vocals and Finn Emmens Green on bass formed a talented pair that smoothed out initial technical difficulties in the opening number into a truly impressive rendition of the Beatles’ “Girl” which lent a mellow atmosphere to its accompanying scene. 

Opening night is always a little bit experimental, an opportunity to iron out creases for the following nights, and creases there certainly were, but ironed out in equal measure. Co-director Kate Harkness stepped up to the role of Feste, as fellow co-director Lukas Ruediger begged patience for her using a script before the metaphorical curtains rose. However, my lowered expectations were pleasantly re-heightened as Harkness’s script became almost a mere prop; how she managed to pull off such an excellent performance at such short notice is testament to her talent as both director and now actor. 

The talent was not limited to Harkness alone, though, as the Floats’ cast hauled out stellar performance after stellar performance throughout the play. Being from Merton myself, it was odd to see people I interact with on the daily suddenly shining in these roles with talent I have been apparently deprived of seeing these past few years. Hajrah Hafeez’s Malvolio was one such exceptional performance – her appearance in neon yellow leg warmers and tutu with fabricated smile plastered on her face had the audience in stitches. As did Tom Allen’s Sir Andrew, whose – dare I say – tomfoolery (pun intended) absolutely nailed the essence of his asinine character. Camilo Mosquera’s Duke Orsino cut a dashing figure in purple velvet as he swaggered about the stage and onto sofas. Jemima Freeman as Maria and Caroline Longley as Captain/Officer both equally shone in their respective roles. And how could I forget Charlie Rand’s devoted homosexual pirate, Antonio, drawing out more explicitly the homoerotic undertones of Shakespeare’s own character? 

Non-Merton cast members were no exception to the talent on display, as Carys Howell’s (Sir Toby) exquisite comedic delivery and Peep Show-esque back-and-forth with Sir Andrew testified. Megan Bruton as Viola conveyed as much by expression as by dialogue, and praise must be bestowed on the casting director for casting Esme Rhodes in the role of Sebastian: with hair and costume rendering the already similar pair near-identical, the deception of disguise came to life for the audience in stark contrast to the imaginative license most productions would require on the audience’s part. And I first saw Caitlin O’Sullivan in The Aliens back in October 2021, so to see her shine in the role of Olivia, such a drastically different role to The Aliens’s Evan, exemplified the range of her talent. 

But the true show-stealer was of course the Reverend Lyndon Webb in the role of – could it be? – a priest. Casting Rev. Webb in a role he told me he had “trained six years to play” was perhaps the most inspired move in the Oxford drama scene since A² Productions cast a drag queen as Blithe Spirit’s Madame Arcati, and was only improved by the guise of audience participation as Olivia asked if any member of the audience might be able to officiate her wedding. An initially silent role, Webb’s expressions more than made up for his lack of dialogue – eliciting the most rapturous laughter of the play without saying a word was an impressive feat indeed. When his few lines of dialogue finally came, he delivered them with all the aplomb of a man who gives sermons in Merton Chapel for a living: unmatched projection, exquisite comedic timing. If the Church doesn’t work out, perhaps a thespian career is calling for Rev. Webb. 

The Merton Garden Play was a night of belly-laughs, a gentle dip back into the world of sixteenth century literature for a post-finals English student, and a reminder not only of the talent of Merton (not that I’m biased, of course) and its outsourced actors, but also the real comedy behind many of the Bard’s plays, something very easy to forget as you desperately scrape together essays for a coursework deadline. 

Twelfth Night was shown in the Merton gardens from 31 May to 3 June 2023.

Image credit: Chloe Fairbanks

Image description: The Merton Floats performing Twelfth Night.