Last year, you may recall, I came to the conclusion that Twelfth Night is my favourite Shakespeare play. So its inclusion in the Summer of Love (directed by Emma Rice, no less) couldn’t have made me happier – and to top that, some inspired casting. As soon as I learned all this I was counting down the days to its first preview on Thursday 18 May.
You may remember that day. Fairly bright and breezy early on, but a rapid onslaught of heavy grey clouds came in, as threatened, and showed no sign of relenting. Obviously I was there, and arrived in very good time (I’d arranged my working week so I could leave promptly and get near the front of the queue) – but had to be sensible and hang around inside. Though that did allow me to pick up the news that a former Sunny Afternoon cast member (Jason Baughan) was stepping in at short notice to cover illness! The rain then seemed to ease off, so I waited a bit and then went outside to queue; it was fine for a short while, but then the downpour became heavier again… As I became damper and damper I remember almost praying that the show was brilliant – there’s nothing worse than suffering for something sub-par.
But, of course, my faith in Emma Rice absolutely paid off (I’d arranged to be at 10 shows, including official duties at press night, before seeing a single one). I’ve never been so happy about being soaked to the bone! The riot of colour and comedy shone through the gloom like a sequinned beacon, enveloping sodden groundlings in its glow. It somehow managed to exceed my supremely high expectations – my cheeks ached from smiling and I barely noticed that my clothes had almost merged with my skin. I absolutely detest being out in the rain, so the fact I most willingly managed it speaks volumes.
There are so many things I could prattle of, but I’ll try to coherently express my love for this production. The first thing you see when you enter the theatre is the setup, so what about Lez Brotherston’s set? The play itself constantly refers to the sea, so it’s ideal that the set begins as the SS Unity (a party boat) and we retain echoes of that throughout with the lifebuoys (saying ‘In Love We Trust’) in the background. A pair of runways project out from the front of the stage, reminiscent of ships’ planks and harbours – as well as harking back to the twin theme, making the stage symmetrical.
The text. Now there’s a thorny issue… Not only has this production switched the order of some scenes, and added in the shipwreck at the beginning, but some of the wording has been updated. I am a worshipper of Shakespeare’s verse, of course, but should we always sacrifice understanding for beauty? Absolutely not! An early line of Viola’s that I love is “And what should I do in llyria? My brother he is in Elysium.”, but Elysium has been changed to “a watery grave”. I only know the meaning of Elysium from my own private study of classical mythology when I was younger, so the chances are many wouldn’t know for sure what that line means. The wonderful thing is that if someone enjoys the production there’s nothing stopping them from finding the text and reading the original words – plus they’ll understand what more of it means and get greater reward for it. Everybody wins! At the end of the day, a staging needs to successfully tell the story, else everyone’s time is wasted.
And Emma Rice’s vision for this production is, once again, spot on. What you immediately get is an incredible amount of fun; no source of comedy is left untapped, be it visual or through wordplay. But then on top of that, the whole thing feels so inclusive that it’s like it’s giving you a big hug. We Are Family suddenly seems to hold greater significance than it ever has previously, making this show the ultimate tonic as we navigate Brexit, a destabilising general election and terror attacks close to home. And to top it all off, Rice has drawn on some very personal influences to make this show (read her programme notes for a full explanation). So if you think it was her sticking two fingers up to the Globe board, you haven’t been paying attention at all.
I must also talk about the cast. Quite a few familiar faces in there from various places, as well as some new ones – and it’s such an ensemble piece that I have to say something about each and every one of them.
Kandaka Moore and Theo St. Claire form the ‘ensemble’, playing everyone from Curio and Valentine, to Illyria’s officers and Olivia’s priests. They’re a fantastic supporting double act who manage to give their characters such definition despite them playing relatively minor parts in their scenes. Theo also understudies Antonio (presumably Kandaka also covers when necessary?); I was lucky enough to see him in this role on one occasion and was hugely impressed at the individual stamp he put on it. In this situation, Kandaka combines both ensemble roles into one, which is also no mean feat.
Talking of covers, Pieter Lawman (who brilliantly portrays Antonio – his “How have you made division of yourself?” is a genuine highlight for me) understudies the major male roles, including Sir Toby and Malvolio. He was on for the latter when I saw Theo as Antonio and was so incredibly funny.
When you read the actual play, you realise how little Orsino actually features, despite him being an important figure in the story – in this production he does seem to have a bit more prominence, though that could be partly due to Joshua Lacey’s memorable performance. With a slight whiff of 80s Botham, though clad in leather rather than cricket whites, he instantly makes an impression with his If Music Be The Food Of Love song – and those jigs… Opposite him, as the story begins, is Annette McLaughlin as Olivia. Perhaps the funniest Olivia I’ve ever seen; her attempts to make Cesario stay are hilarious.
The unlikely couple of Sir Toby Belch and Maria (in terms of social status, at least) are brought to gregarious life by Tony Jayawardena and Carly Bawden. It seems like every time I see the show their characters’ behaviour becomes more and more outlandish… I love that Maria is absolutely unapologetic about Malvolio’s treatment, in contrast with the rest of the plotters – and she definitely has the best reaction to Malvolio falling for the letter! Tony’s portrayal of Sir Toby is hugely entertaining (“A plague o’these pickled herrings!”), but he also does have a menacing side, as he tries to intimidate Malvolio when he confronts them, getting increasingly physical.
I may have mentioned this quite a lot already, but prior to the official announcement I’d decided that Marc Antolin should be cast as Sir Andrew Aguecheek – then, lo and behold, it happened! And I could not have been more thrilled about finally seeing the character onstage. Clad in pink and sporting a mullet and ‘tache, he is an extremely camp Sir Andrew with some serious moves! Marc certainly goes full on in his performance, from his unique entrance and quite literally throwing himself around the stage (“I’m OK!”), though with more than enough time to be a “great eater of beef” by snacking on Monster Munch. He is an absolute joy to watch, and I look forward to the uncontrollable giggle fits every time I step inside the theatre.
This production of Twelfth Night hands some of Feste’s duties over to Fabian (Nandi Bhebhe) leaving Feste (Le Gateau Chocolat) mostly as an onlooker who occasionally is brought into the story – much like the Blues Man in 946 and Whitehands in Tristan & Yseult. In some ways it is a bit of a shame to lose that “witty fool”, however I can see how a traditional use of Feste wouldn’t quite work for this particular version. And when you have someone as fabulous as Le Gateau Chocolat onboard, who cares? Also, Fabian quite often feels unimportant in the story as a whole, so this way it justifies (in this production) her inclusion; as ever, it’s a treat to hear Nandi sing and watch her dance, so I’d say it’s all worked out rather well.
I think Anita-Joy Uwajeh and John Pfumojena have to be my all-time favourite Viola and Sebastian. Very often, Sebastian can be a bit of a wet blanket (possibly solely down to the line, “I am yet so near the manners of my mother”), so it’s refreshing that John makes him so full of character. And Anita-Joy gives a brilliantly funny turn as Viola – she begins filled with uncertainty, but steels herself and shows her independent streak quickly. The pair bring a raw emotion to the twins’ reunion at the end of the play, so much so that I often find myself welling up as they realise they really have found each other again.
And that just leaves one: Katy Owen as Malvolio. I’d obviously tried to work out how she might play it, but I never expected the moustachioed figure that I was greeted with on that first preview! Whilst it’s obviously entertaining us for us watching, Katy makes him so officious and proud you can definitely understand why the rest of the household would want to bring him down a peg or two… But what she does really well is show how human Malvolio is underneath his bluster, almost on the verge of tears as Sir Toby tries his intimidatory tactics. To top it off, the yellow stockings episode really does have to be seen to be believed! Another iconic performance – the Globe was made for her.
I also do need to talk about the sensational music and wonderful choreography, but I’ve rambled enough for now… Keep an eye out for future blog posts on those topics.
My initial aim of going to twelve Twelfth Nights was blown out of the water as soon as I saw it a single time – why limit yourself when something’s that good?