The fact that so many people are going to hate Emma Rice’s production of Twelfth Night makes me like it all the more. There is *gasp* amplified sound and *shock* artificial lighting. It is certainly very different to the last Globe production, the all-male affair with Rylance as Olivia. I checked, in this production, it’s at least 10 minutes before we get any verse, ten minutes involving a dance routine with sailors and raucous renditions of the YMCA and We Are Family. Any suspicion that Rice may have compromised in her final season evaporates instantly – not that this feels remotely like a sequel to last year’s Midsummer Night’s Dream.
It begins on a cruise, some point in the late 70s-early 80s. There’s sequinned jumpsuits, mullets, sailor outfits, leather jackets, a glittery drag queen – the works. The soundtrack is disco, the mood is anarchic, the thing couldn’t be camper if it tried. And then the ship sinks. Woops.
Illyria appears to be somewhere off Scotland. There’s kilts, and Scottish accents scattered around, but it’s not an idea that’s pushed too far. Place largely falls away, which is fine, because it’s not as though Illyria is the most fleshed out of locations. Characters are brought out to drive the narrative.
Honestly, I don’t know the text of Twelfth Night well enough to determine what exactly had been cut. I think a fair bit of Feste was scissored out. Olivia certainly seemed more prominent in this production, although I don’t know that the text had been edited around her as much as the performance was genuinely funny and memorable. And, this being a Rice production, there was a far bit of deviance from the text, plenty of ad-libs (or apparent ad-libs) although the original pronouns remain intact.
As with all three of Rice’s productions I’ve seen at the Globe, Twelfth Night is marked by a complete clarity of storytelling. She uses music almost constantly (it being the food of love, after all) and uses strong characterisations (at least among the men) that would probably play as caricatures against another canvas. Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Marc Antolin) needs only to walk on before he gets a laugh. I think it’s a combination of the campiness, the walk, the hair and the lisp. But, this never seems to work against the text, yes the gags are often visual but they don’t feel cheap.
I definitely get the sense that telling a good story is the most important thing to Rice. Her work is unashamedly populist. Twelfth Night, like last year’s Midsummer and 946, is joyous, warm and romantic. There’s not a whiff of the academic about it, but it’s not apolitical. I’m not sure if the casting is gender-blind or gender-conscious, but either way there are women playing significant male characters – and that’s without mentioning the gorgeously-voiced Le Gateau Chocolat as Feste. I suppose the 21st century of a court clown in a drag queen. Someone more intelligent than I should write about how Rice treats the cross-dressing in the play, because while it’s clearly a crucial part of the plot, it’s never made a big deal of. When I think of how big a fuss was made of Tamsin Grieg playing Malvolia, it’s interesting to see how Rice does it without any fanfare.
Which brings me on to Malvolio. Apparently he’s the most interesting character in Twelfth Night for me, because he’s the only one I seem to write about.
Like in the NT’s recent production, Malvolio is played by a woman. Unlike the NT’s recent production, Malvolio is not transformed into a woman. Instead, Katy Owen plays him in drag, as a sort of middle-aged, middle class man with ideas above his station. He’s of another era, vaguely Edwardian, probably born into a line of service with an accompanying sense of entitlement (conveniently forgetting that he himself is not the master.) He looks like he’d go foxhunting, put it that way.
I bring up the Edwardian era because there’s something of that vaudevillian period in Owen herself. There’s something ancient about her, as is there something incredibly childlike. A total character actress, capable of believably playing a fairy, a 12-year-old girl and a middle-aged man purely by shifting her features ever so slightly. In Midsummer it was the eyebrows, in 946 her pout, and here it’s a finger, restless and ceaselessly tapping, timekeeping probably. Yes, she is an actress that plays in broad strokes (her entrance is far more openly contemptuous and villainous that Tamsin Grieg’s was) but it’s the tiny things she does that transform her.
Malvolio is made both more monstrous and more pitiful than I had imagined. Comically monstrous, screaming in a audience member’s face was a highlight, and genuinely monstrous, Malvolio is clearly hated by the rest of the staff. But just when you’re rooting for Malvolio to get his comeuppance, pantomime style, his bottom lip starts to tremble, and Owen gives you a man completely without self-confidence. It’s brilliant work.
Do I think it’s a production that works entirely… probably not. There’s certainly things I’ve already pushed to the back of my mind. But there are few better or more anarchic storytellers working on such a grand scale in London right now, and if this is Rice’s Shakespeare swansong, it’s a good one.
And a jig! There was a jig! It was definitely a solid 9/10. A 10/10 looks like this btw.
Photo by Hugo Glendinning.