Twelfth Night (Young Vic)

Twelfth Night (Young Vic)
Kwame Kwei-Armah has opened up his first season as Artistic Director of the Young Vic with a vibrant chorus of joy, which beautifully blends Shakespeare and song. Come in whatever mood you like, you’ll leave with a warm glow in your heart. Taking my seat on one side of the Young Vic’s thrust stage, which was adorned with world-flag bunting and jaunty, colourful signs, I groaned to myself. Just my luck: a year 10 school group sat directly behind me. Just grin and bear.

“A vibrant chorus of joy, which beautifully blends Shakespeare and song”

But I needn’t have been worried. This wasn’t your normal tight-lipped night-in with the Bard. 15 minutes before the show even began I was sharing barbeque food with my fellow audience members and chatting casually. Cast members passed round grilled vegetables and jerk chicken while music played and a group played ball games in the background. It’s carnival; welcome to Illyria. Kwame Kwei-Armah and Oskar Eustis have composed a wonder-world of cultures and genres. Barely two characters’ accents are the same, or two songs from the same genre. From Pop and Reggae to R&B soul and tap, Shaina Taub’s extraordinary score is elegantly woven in with the original play text, and both complement each other perfectly. The songs provide fun but also clarity to Shakespeare’s language, extenuating moments of humour and sustaining moments of tenderness. How better to visualize the complicated Viola [Cesario], Olivia and Duke Orsino love triangle, but by having them sing a three-way love ballad? My personal favourite: the ‘Roast of Toby Belch’ which turns into a hilarious three-way number between Belch, Aguecheek and Feste: ‘You are the Worst!’ with rhyming name-calling is certainly something Shakespeare would be proud of. With so many music numbers, clocking in at 90 minutes, the show obviously uses a brutal cut of the original text and a lot of Shakespeare’s best lines and speeches are lost. We do miss some famous moments, and in a production that lands so many comedic hits, Malvolio and his yellow stockings are a bit of a let down. But only Shakespeare bores will really care and even they cannot try and argue that they don’t have fun. I admire the bold cut. It is done for all the right reasons and clarity of the plot is not lost.

“The Young Vic’s new Director has introduced a radical vision for the theatre, and we should all be very excited”

This is a huge, 30-strong community ensemble performance, with a vivacious, multicultural cast, but I would be remise to not point out a few stand out performances. Gabrielle Brooks is excellent as Viola/Cesario and Gerard Carey is side-splittingly funny as Malvolio. In a production that features so many accents and cultures, it is notable that Shakespeare’s love-to-hate-him antagonist is a posh, white, stuck-up narcissist. He is the Shakespeare traditionalist, desperately trying to force this group of free souls to return to a conservative manner of convention and order. He spits his lines with absolute clarity and enunciation, as any Shakespearean actor worth his salt should. But he isn’t of this generation, and his disingenuous nature is revealed and laughed at. Carey nails the part. Melissa Allen is immense as Feste. In such a vibrant, passionate production one might have thought the Fool would top the eccentricity, but Allen’s Feste does quite the opposite, and is all the better for it. She plays up the philosophical subtext of Shakespeare’s wise clown, making the character both unclownish and entirely endearing. There is genuine love in her witty comforting of Olivia, ‘The more fool, madonna, to mourn for your brother’s soul being in heaven’, creating a poignant moment early on. Fool also turns Priest, which is fitting, as Allen’s Feste suitable joins couples together, in the same way her character ties the worlds of Shakespeare and music. Finally, as the audience are left in a shower of confetti, with a joyous and diverse cast smiling out at us, we are left with the question: ‘Is this not love?’ and the thought: ‘what a world it could be’. This production may well astound and offend Shakespeare traditionalists, but it got a standing ovation from myself and the year 10s, who are very much sold on the new brand of Shakespeare. The Young Vic’s new Director has introduced a radical vision for the theatre, and we should all be very excited. Twelfth Night will be running at the Young Vic until 17th November, tickets can be purchased here.

5/5

Image: Johan Persson
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