Writer: William Shakespeare
Director: Jo Davies
Reviewer: Andrea Allen
“What country, friends is this?” It’s Illyria, so expect cross-dressing, mistaken identity, music, booze and a few cruel tricks, “nothing that is so, is so”. As the lights dim, music that can be inadequately described as Eastern European Gypsy-punk envelopes the room, setting a tingling tone of faraway lands where all is not as it seems. As rain tumbles from the skies and a supermarket trolley with fairy lights and a traffic cone waits in the wings, it’s safe to say that anyone sitting in the Royal Exchange tonight should expect the unexpected.
Twelfth Night isn’t short on big characters, and Jo Davies’ version is no exception. Harry Attwell is fabulously outrageous as Sir Andrew Aguecheek, his show-down with Cesario in full Ultimate Fighter get-up is side-splittingly hilarious, whilst the oft pondered line “I was adored once too” is delivered with such measured vulnerability that you don’t know whether to crack-up or cry. Kate Kennedy showcases a mind-boggling array of facial expressions as the deliriously besotted Olivia, lending the character a fantastically comedic slant that you rarely see explored elsewhere. Similarly Antonio is bestowed an importance which he is otherwise often denied, while everyone around him is deceiving, dishonest or in the case of Orsino, dithering, the one person who is forthright and honest and willing to earnestly fight for what they believe in is left standing alone. It’s a sharp choice, providing balance to a play that often gets lost in boisterousness and caricature.
It’s safe to say however, that in this Twelfth Night, a charismatic, sexy, heel-toting Feste steals the show. Kate O’Donnell is a force to be reckoned with. It’s her Royal Exchange debut, and fingers crossed this will be the first of many. O’Donnell’s insight into her work on Twelfth Night makes for thought-provoking reading, “who knew that something written 500 years ago for a man, could be played by, and be relevant to, a trans woman”? Who indeed, but why not? It’s a whole new perspective on the character and O’Donnell’s delivery is impeccable, sending a crucial message about the traditional lack of trans actors onstage whilst simultaneously making everyone in the audience wish that they could even begin to have that kind of presence when they step into a room. The minute she steps onstage, sass, wit and effortless cool saturate the auditorium. It’s no-one’s show but hers.
Simon Armstrong’s Toby on the other hand, is ok. The character’s drunken revelry lacks any belying of the human beneath, there’s no depth or complexity, no pathos, and it just gets a little bit dull. In a role that would usually have the whole house in fits, it rings hollow. His unfair outburst to Sir Andrew at the end lacks its usual punch because it barely seems out of character for a rambling drunk. Sadly this dogs the production throughout, and as Toby drags out an electric guitar or his twentieth bottle of booze it becomes clear that any attachment to the character can largely be attributed to the comedy prop he’s holding at any given moment.
Similarly disappointing, the twangs of Balkan-style musical brilliance which promise so much at the opening of the play are sadly woefully under-used. Short of interludes at scene changes, the musicians take a back seat, and what should be core to this show becomes a mere aside. An energetic jig at the curtain call gives a tantalising taste of the energy that should infuse the bones of this show. It’s a shame that Orsino’s “enough, no more” in the opening scene appears to have its desired effect.
It’s far from a shipwreck, but despite blindingly impressive performances Twelfth Night falls a little short of the greatness it seeks to achieve.
Runs until Saturday 20th May | Image: Jonathan Keenan