When last season, Emma Rice was appointed artistic director, the Globe seemed to set a new course. Her tenure would mean the company would no longer be focused simply on conservation of Shakespeare but on mutation and adaptation of the classic texts for a modern audience. Yet, this, only her second season, is also Rice’ swansong – she will be stepping down in a few months, and if her adaptation of Twelfth Night is any indication, she is making it count.
In Rice’s production we’re transported to parallel 1970s, a world in which Shakespeare’s verses are cut with disco anthems, glitter, bright lights, and enthusiastic dancing. Twelfth Night, for all its fun is a text shot through with melancholy. These subtler, darker emotions get lost in Rice’s production, what it lacks in nuance it more than makes up for in sheer entertainment. The audience packed into benches and standing in front of the stage were buoyed by the dazzle and spectacle of the production, which more than once felt like a raucous panto; able to capture wonderment and joy in equal measure.
In Rice’s production we’re transported to parallel 1970s, a world in which Shakespeare’s verses are cut with disco anthems, glitter, bright lights, and enthusiastic dancing
A lot of things happen in Twelfth Night: after a shipwreck, the twins Viola and Sebastian are separated; the heroine Viola finds herself washed up on Illyria a far-off country that Rice imagines as a seventies Scotland. In Illyria, Viola disguises herself as a man, Cesario, placing herself in the service of the Duke Orsino who is trying to win the favour of the wealthy Countess Olivia. Viola as Cesario goes to woo Olivia on behalf of the Duke but finds that she has become the object of Olivia’s affection whilst she herself has fallen in love with the Duke. Meanwhile, Olivia’s steward Malvolio, is tricked by others in Olivia’s household into thinking Olivia has fallen in love with him, and proceeds to act so inappropriately that he’s carted off to solitary confinement. Things come to a head when Sebastian, not dead after all also washes up on Illyria and is mistaken for Cesario.
It can be a challenge for the cast to effectively convey to an audience who may not all be familiar with the plot. In particular, Olivia’s fool, Feste, can be a tricky character to translate in most productions. Here, he has been transformed into something of a one-man Greek chorus – Le Gateau Chocolat, drag act extraordinaire, holds court onstage, baritone soaring. John Pfumojena as Sebastian and Anita-Joy Uwajeh as Viola are both assuredly charismatic, Uwajeh, who has the meatier role, is particularly so. It is however, Katy Owen as the uptight steward Malvolio, who steals the show. Owen is afforded plenty of opportunity to show off her comedic chops, her physical comedy in particular, is pitch perfect, teetering always on the edge of the truly ridiculous. In the latter scenes when Malvolio comes to realise that he has been tricked, Owen really shines, letting the veneer of his control and self-possession fracture to reveal his needy vulnerability. Owen chooses to play the role straight, giving no hint in the performance that she is woman playing a man; in a play constructed around the idea of disguise and gender, it would’ve been interesting to have the element of closeted desire that Tamsin Greig brought to the role when she played Malvolio at the National Theatre earlier this year, nevertheless it’s a fantastic performance.
Owen’ physical comedy is pitch perfect, teetering always on the edge of the truly ridiculous, however in the latter scenes when Malvolio comes to realise that he has been tricked, Owen really shines.
Twelfth Night is a story of subversion, and rightly, Emma Rice has put reinvention of interpretation and diversity of cast at the centre of her vision for the play. In many ways, this was the play everyone had been looking forward to from her, Rice has consistently pushed at the boundaries accepted at the Globe. She’s drawn her fair share of criticism for her productions as well as admiration. I was offered something of a window into the former last week when I was seated next to a rather elderly white gentleman for the performance. It was clear from the outset, he was not going to be a fan. He sat stony faced as the magnificent Le Gateau Chocolat, resplendent in a gold, belted out the opening song. Magnanimously, I gave him the benefit of the doubt – drag acts can be a shock to the uninitiated, perhaps he’d warm to the performance. But it was already too late: by the time he’d composed his face into a rictus grimace of “tolerance”, Tony Jayawardena, and then in quick succession, Theo St.Claire, Kandaka Moore, and Nandi Bhebhe were on stage in their kilts. This simply was not on - he’d come to see Shakespeare, who were these brown-skinned interlopers? “Black and Scotch?!” he muttered, incredulous, as if the thought that anyone with skin darker than the colour of weak tea might ever wear tartan had never occurred to him (clearly, he was not a fan of chef extraordinaire Tony Singh). He waited a few more moments, presumably to determine whether this really was happening in front his own eyes, when the cast did not turn any fairer, he gathered up his jacket and left, all before ten minutes were up. This worked out excellently for me and the reviewer next to me, we shuffled into the space he’d vacated, and proceeded to enjoy the show, view no longer impended by a pillar.
Not all of Rice’s experimentation has hit the mark, but at least she tried, it is a great shame she will no longer be afforded the opportunity to explore some more.
Nothing quite brings up identity politics in theatre like Shakespeare. Though originally devised as entertainment for the masses, these stories are often seen as the preserve of the elite, his fierce progressivism is forgotten behind the fug of outdated language. Who gets to tell these stories, and who consumes them? Rice’s answer is that muscular adaptation of the text and inclusivity is the best way to maintain the Shakespearean legacy, in her tenure she confronted the Globe’s establishment, pushed at the accepted boundaries in much the same way that Viola’s arrival in shakes up the puritanical society in Illyria. Not all of Rice’s experimentation has hit the mark, but at least she tried, it is a great shame she will no longer be afforded the opportunity to explore some more.
4 stars Twelfth Night is on until 5th August at the GlobeTheatre Tickets from £5