Twelfth Night is one of those plays I’ve always found difficult to enjoy. Now that our culture has all but abandoned the topsy turvy twelfth night tradition, Sir Toby’s japes are the only element of the plot that seem to have any shred of probability to them. Then there’s the fact that directors can never really reconcile their desire to have a “pretty” female lead with audience’s need to have someone who looks even halfway convincing in drag (the 1990s film adaptation is a prime example of this, with Imogen Stubbs feeling rather too much like Blackadder’s Bob for comfort). The japes take an uncomfortably dark turn and the denouement is wildly hasty, with significant characters disappearing abruptly, their absence explained in throwaway lines. And into all of this, you have to insert regular dances and songs. Like I said, it’s a difficult play.
The current production at Shakespeare’s Globe navigates these difficulties with aplomb. I went to a midnight matinee feeling somewhat worried about staying awake after failing to stop at home for an early evening nap. I needn’t have worried. It isn’t humanly possible to sleep through a show like this.
The action starts on a cruise ship, vibrant with disco music and 70s fashions. Sebastian and Viola are both pretty in flares, with close cut afro hairstyles. Gender-bending is the order of the day. Many of the players – notably Katy Owen (last season’s spectacular Puck) as Malvolio and Nandi Bhebhe as Fabian in heels – play opposite gender parts, with the focus on androgyny rather than drag. This provides a far more subtle and interesting commentary on our perceptions of ‘male’ and ‘female’ than Viola’s assumption of boy’s attire.
Anita-Joy Uwajeh strikes a perfect note as Viola, alternating lash-beating timidity and boyish awkwardness. She modifies her body language to signify the change, making the disguise believable with no need for comedy facial hair.
The cast is spectacular – so much so that it is hard to single out anyone in particular. Each of them adds distinct touches that smooth out the play’s loose ends and ragged edges.Annette McLaughlin’s comic timing makes Olivia’s approach to her love life somewhat less ridiculous. Joshua Lacey’s Orsino is long-haired, leather-jacketed and oversexed, a womaniser clearly fickle enough to switch his affections from Olivia to Viola once the central ruse is up. Elegant drag performer Le Gateau Chocolat dazzles in sequins and gives good voice as Feste and brings welcome sass and sparkle to ‘Sister’ Topaz. Carly Bawden is pert and saucy in her maid’s outfit as Maria – pining less for Sir Toby and taking more of a leading part in the action than in some other productions – egging the others on and leading their mischief. Marc Antolin – potentially the best thing in the show – is uproariously camp as a lisping Sir Andrew Aguecheek with a wardrobe that deserves its own place on the cast list. Tony Jayawardena’s kilted Sir Toby Belch for once stays on the right side of the grotesque: a drunk, for certain, but it’s clear why Maria is so taken with him. Katy Owen takes sheer delight in playing Malvolio, buzzing around the stage like a tiny, uptight mosquito, who bursts out in turn with repressed pride, rage, and love.
Music and dance enliven the parts where the plot starts to drag, and movement affords characters such as Antonio and Sebastian more charisma than they otherwise might have had. Even at the end, the cast is buzzing – and the audience are too. It’s an enlivening and uplifting show – and an excellent take on one of Shakespeare’s more unusual plays.