Act 1, scene 1: A room in the duke’s palace. So begins the written version of Twelfth Night, as a lovesick Orsino proclaims, “If music be the food of love, play on.” This seems to have helped to inspire Emma Rice’s production at the Globe, with some critics dubbing it ‘Twelfth Night: The Musical’ (The Independent, The Stage, The Times, The Upcoming). This seems to be thinly veiled stabs at Rice’s approach, but are they justified? True, her productions always do have a heavy musical influence, so she’s doing what she knows – but if you actually know the play well, you’ll be aware of how musical it already is. This comes not only in words spoken, but also with the inclusion of several songs sung mostly by Feste.
It’s only natural, then, to go all out with music: the clues are there throughout. And taking 1978 as the time setting for this production makes a rich choice of genres available (from disco right through to punk), that somehow all work together in the same show. What music and singing is great at is allowing emotions to come flooding through – this is true whether it’s Maria venting her anger at Malvolio, or Orsino trying to woo Olivia.
Sir Toby Belch and Sir Andrew Aguecheek are “drunk nightly”, and are always ready to “set about some revels”. In the play, they decide to “rouse the night owl in a catch” – basically, for their own amusement, they intend to loudly sing a round (a simple song where each participant staggers the moment at which they begin to sing). Ironically, this one in particular repeats “Hold thy peace”, And when Malvolio arrives to put a stop to their revelling, Feste and Sir Toby sing to taunt him; this is ingeniously alluded to in this production with Sir Toby quoting lines (and singing the final one) of a verse of Gloria Gaynor’s I Will Survive. It may seem like a frivolous move to get cheap laughs, but the words hold more significance to the story than you’d expect.
Likewise, starting and ending the show with Sister Sledge’s We Are Family might not be the most obvious choice, but it actually ties in with the play’s themes rather well. There’s the obvious family link in the title and chorus (as well as “I got all my sisters with me”) and it’s just a joyous message of togetherness, with the characters starting out on SS Unity.
As vibrant and joyful as many of the original songs are (composed by Ian Ross), if you listen to the lyrics you will hear how clever they actually are. A lot is inspired by speeches (If Music Be The Food Of Love is lines 1-6 and 9-12 of Orsino’s monologue) or reworkings of songs from the text. This is a really clever move to keep as much of Shakespeare’s verse in as possible, whilst sticking to a vision for the show.
I’d like to draw your attention to the Twelfth Night Theme. First performed in the immediate aftermath of the shipwreck, as Viola and Sebastian go overboard, it crops up at various points in the show as a reminder of the core plot line. And its lyrics are exquisite:
Pitched apart from breaking deck
Washed an almost happy wreck
Groaning vessel run aground
What once was lost is now so found
And stripped, at last, of our attire
Washed in water, cleansed by fire
Cleansed by fire.
The ship’s captain sings the first verse, almost as if it’s his log of events, before Antonio arrives in his boat to rescue Sebastian and joins in with the second:
Severed then you slipped my grasp
We are Aristophanes’ apple halved
Put back together we are healed
Human truth is truth revealed
Fortunate tide, storm rages still
Come do your worst, or what you will
I am you, and you are me
I am you, and you are me
You are me.
This seems to link to Antonio’s lines as Sebastian and Viola are uncovered (“How have you made division of yourself? An apple, cleft in two, is not more twin than these two creatures.”), which is Shakespeare making a reference to Aristophanes’ discourse on love in Plato’s Symposium. It states that initially humans were round, like apples, but then were cut in two; each half longed for the other so much that they searched everywhere for it. This discourse also supposedly accounts for gay love (as some would seek out similarity rather than an opposite), which applies to Viola in her “masculine usurped attire”, attracting Olivia (and also possibly causing Orsino to question his sexuality). In some productions, Antonio’s love for Sebastian is shown to be more than friends, or a master and his servant.
My stars shine darkly over me
My stars shine darkly over me
Let me bear my evils alone
Along these heartless shores.
The final part of the song is Sebastian’s, as he is rowed away by Antonio. It pre-empts his dialogue when the pair of them resurface later in the play, and puts across his despair at being separated from Viola. When the song is reprised at the end of the show, the tone changes as Sebastian sings, “My stars shine brightly over me.”
Another original highlight is the party tune Fear No Colours; it’s an uplifting number, inviting the actors to partake in a salsa as they play musical chairs. Inspiration for the refrain comes from Feste’s response to Maria’s questioning of his whereabouts in act one, scene five: “Let her hang me: he that is well hanged in this world needs to fear no colours.” As is often the case in this production, Feste takes the lead in singing so it is quite apt for his lines to be repurposed as lyrics – and especially given the natural poetry in them. These lines also fit the situation very well, as all the people there are carefree and feel like their purpose is to have a good time, leaving more serious business to others.
I’m also a particular fan of the “drunken man” answer being turned into a short song, which we first hear (fittingly) when Sirs Andrew and Toby start their revelling. An instrumental version is later used for Olivia to attempt to woo Cesario, and then for Sebastian to show his willingness to be “ruled by” her. It is tango style music, but an inventive range of choreography (Etta Murfitt) is set to it, with entertaining results.
Finally, Feste. If you’re going to have the character singing most of the songs, and with the 70s theme, why wouldn’t you cast a sequinned drag queen in the role? The play is awash with gender fluidity as it is, so having Le Gateau Chocolat onboard as the Fool makes perfect sense. This production sees Feste as even more of a peripheral character than in the play – as with Tristan and Yseult’s Whitehands and 946’s Blues Man, Feste remains mostly an onlooker, only occasionally getting fully involved in the plot.
I’ve previously spoken about why I think this is a good idea (for Fabian’s sake, if nothing else), and this particular casting is spot on. For this kind of Feste there needs to be a presence, sass, and (most importantly) a killer voice. And it can only be a good thing to introduce the notion of drag queens to any children that may be in the audience.
So there it is, Twelfth Night: The Musical. Or, if you will, simply Twelfth Night. Of all Shakespeare’s works I feel like this is one that most cries out for some sort of musical slant, from the evidence of the text alone. And the fact that Emma Rice has once more brought a melodic vision to life only serves to reinforce that in my mind.
“Give me excess of it.”