Twelfth Night, part of the Summer of Love at Shakespeare’s Globe, dazzles the senses. The pivotal element of this production is the directorial vision. Emma Rice has consulted with her creative team to create a setting worthy of both Shakespeare’s writing and the talented cast.
‘If music be the food of love, play on,
Give me excess of it; that surfeiting
The appetite may sicken and so die.’
So are the opening lines of Shakespeare’s comedy Twelfth Night…usually. Not with this production by Emma Rice. Here there is frivolity aboard the S.S. Unity and the famous words come amidst the opening sequence. Twelfth Night as part of the Summer of Love at Shakespeare’s Globe, dazzles the senses from the first appearance of Le Gateau Chocolat until the exuberant finale.
There will be much debate about the liberties taken both with Shakespeare’s text and with the Globe’s original objectives for standards of presentation. However leaving all theatrical politics aside, Rice and her team of creatives have presented a fresh aspect that deserves to be revered for what it is rather than opined about for what it is not.
Programme notes by Rice reveal that her directorial choices have been informed by events in her own life. They are a reflection of her loss and grief which Rice interprets through the text. This is art.
There is no simple explanation of the narrative lines in Twelfth Night. They twist and turn through farcical misinterpretations and chance meetings of people and events. The characters themselves are gender fluid. The two main protagonists are identical fraternal twins. Anita-Joy Uwajeh and John Pfumojena play the sister and brother, Viola and Sebastian, who are cast into the sea from the wreck of the S.S. Unity. They both believe the other to have drowned.
Viola is pulled from the sea and decides to live as a man to keep herself safe in the court of Orsino. It is obvious that the Duke feels the femininity of his new ‘man’, Cesario but Orsino is focused on winning the hand of the Countess Olivia for material reasons. He sends Cesario to the house of Olivia thinking that the more gentle and comely ‘man’ may sway Olivia. He does, but not in the way Orsino envisaged as Olivia falls in love with the youth and actively pursues him. Obviously the romance is doomed as Cesario is in fact Viola and Viola has fallen in love with Orsino. It’s complicated.
Joshua Lacey presents Orsino as a Scottish dancing, lady slaying Elvis Presley-like charmer. In this production it seems he wants music, the food of love, to play on not because he wants surfeit of it but because he can’t get enough of it. Lacey is charismatic in the role.
Annette McLaughlin is delightful as Olivia. She appears firstly as a grieving woman with a mission and softens noticeably with the developing love for Cesario. In one of those confounding farcical twists the twin brother, Sebastian, eventually reappears from the supposed dead and stumbles upon Olivia. It is a credit to the acting skills of McLaughlin that it is totally believable for Olivia to have no clue that Sebastian is not Cesario and whip him off to be married.
Likewise, Sebastian is willing to go along with Olivia having already been engaged in a fight of which he knew nothing. The numerous farce elements come thick and fast in the second act and Pfumojena is the instrument through which it unfolds. His timing ensures that maximum effect is achieved.
Twelfth Night has many elements of gender ambiguity written into the text. Added to these are the gigantic talents of Le Gateau Chocolat in the role of Fesse and Katy Owen as Malvolio.
Le Gateau Chocolat is an established cabaret and stage performer. His persona is a cross dressing diva given to an excess of sparkle, hair and glamour. His voice is an instrument of beauty that possesses rich velvety bass notes as well as a syrupy upper register. There is no denying the talent and the energy of this performer. Using music as the chief conduit Feste weaves through all the action initiating and promoting advances in the narrative.
Malvolio is at the heart of another plot line. Katy Owen masterfully rides between comedy and pathos. As well as being one of the gender reversed characters Malvolio is also the tragic victim of bullying. At the end of the play, though restored to her position in the house by the Countess, she exacts her revenge by filling her pockets with stones and walking into the sea.
It’s interesting that bullying is highlighted here as a social abhorrence as the issue is very contemporary. The sympathy of the audience is audibly demonstrated to lie with Malvolio. In a school play the bullies would be made to recompense for their sins but in Twelfth Night there is no suitable restitution.
Leading the band of bullies is the maid, Maria. Carly Bawden is strong in this character and sparkles in her scenes. She is firmly in control of the men. Tony Jayawardena is their nominal chief, Sir Toby Belch. He plays the drunken sot with humour and a cunning simplicity. His offsider is Sir Andrew Aguecheek played by Marc Antolin in a 1970’s high camp style. His abundant prat falls and saucy demeanour are wonderful. The last of the ‘gentleman’ is Nandi Bhebe.
This group present one of the highlight scenes when Malvolio discovers the false letter from the Countess that sets Malvolio off on the course to supposed insanity.
Rounding out the cast are two players Kandaka Moore and Theo St. Claire who acquit themselves well in all their scenes. Their appearance as the priests is an example of the diverse musical styles within this production.
Even with the strength of the performances the pivotal element of this production is the directorial vision. Emma Rice has consulted with her creative team to evoke the island country of Illyria, placing it in Scotland in the 1970’s. The time is important to Rice as representative of a time of innocence and at the tipping edge of change.
Music is central to the production. Composed by Ian Ross it includes many styles and has echoes of both the Scottish setting and the disco style of the time. The first song is a cover of Jackson Five’s We are Family that sets the tone well. Mostly the music is excellent and adds yet another layer of complexity but some of the vocal harmonies are dissonant and jarring and lyrics are frustratingly hard to hear in the ensemble singing.
The design by Lez Brotherson works well and serves both narrative and directorial approach. Traces of Scotland and the 1970’s enhance the set and each character’s treatment. The moon suspended over all is stunning and often lit superbly by the lighting design of Malcolm Rippeth. In other scenes the extra lighting is subtle and suitably mood enhancing. The disco lighting is teamed with the disco music and packs a punch with vibrant colours of light and sound.
Historical recreation and original practice this may not be but the story shines in this innovative setting and the audience reaction on Press Night would seem to portend a bumper season here at The Globe. They stamped, cheered and stood in appreciation.