Creator: Kwame Kwei-Armah and Shania Taub
Directors: Kwame Kwei-Armah and Oskar Eustis
Reviewer: Maryam Philpott
The first show by a new Artistic Director is an important indicator of what’s to come, a chance to establish the tone for the ensuing years with a memorable statement about the kind of theatre they want to make. In assuming responsibility for the Young Vic, a musical version of Twelfth Nightmay not be the obvious choice for an inaugural show but it’s community-based inclusive staging and strong equality message has Kwame Kwei-Armah setting-out his stall from the start.
Previously performed in New York in 2016, this version of Twelfth Night has been created by Kwei-Armah and Shania Taub working with 30 assorted members of the local community. Set in Illyria, Viola has washed ashore and, disguised as the boy Cesario, enters the employ of Duke Orsino, a man devotedly in love with his neighbour the Countess Olivia who in turn falls for Cesario. While the pangs of unrequited passion play out, Olivia’s Uncle Toby and servants seek revenge on the snobbish retainer Malvolio while the arrival of Viola’s brother Sebastian causes plenty of confusion.
This version of Twelfth Night is designed to engage the audience as much as possible beginning with barbecue food and interaction with some of the performers. Robert Jones’ cartoonish set juts-out into the audience guaranteeing everyone a good view, while maximum use is made of the auditorium’s exit points and staircases. They really want you to have a good time and with plenty of comic focus and a rousing love-in finale the feel-good factor is dialled-up to the max.
In many ways Kwei-Armah and Taub’s show has much in common with Hairspray, using a chipper heightened reality to make a social statement about love and forgiveness, while the music, in particular, has a similar soulful quality that balances depth with big set-piece spectacles. It’s incredibly unusual – and therefore very exciting – to see bluesy Motown-esque songs in a story that isn’t about that era, and there are some real gems in Taub’s score including the bittersweet ballad Is This Not Love performed with pathos by Melissa Allan’s Feste and Disguise in which the powerful voice of Gabrielle Brooks examines Viola’s identity crisis.
But this Twelfth Night is predominantly focused on the comic with mixed effect. Gerard Carey may be the best Malvolio you’ve ever seen, utterly embodying Olivia’s taunt that “you are sick of self-love” and given the most astonishing tap routine with a hilarious interpretation of the yellow stockings segment. Yet, the Toby Belch subterfuges are confused, one minute his gang are taunting Malvolio and the next they are having sword fights with Cesario although it’s never clear why as scenes descend into a mass of shouted lines.
A similar variation sits across the story of the lovers, so Olivia (Natalie Drew) becomes amusingly beguiled by Cesario, an interaction played for comic effect which Drew sells superbly, but Orsino’s devotion is almost entirely serious and Rupert Young is charming as the heartbroken Duke aching with unrequited love. Brooks is equally enchanting as the suffering Viola in disguise, but the emphasis on the humour takes away from some of the pain of Shakespeare’s original, that fine balance between light and dark captured in the songs isn’t reflected in the storytelling as well as it could be.
Nonetheless, The Young Vic is determined you will go home smiling so a big finale ties-up all the loose ends and releases clouds of ticker tape over the audience. It may lack the subtle nuances of the original, but Twelfth Night is a clever and engaging adaptation that has been designed with happiness in mind. Kwei-Armah has certainly set out his stall and, in the months and years ahead, we can expect the Young Vic to be diverse, integrative, innovative and above all a lot of fun.
Runs Until: 17 November 2018 | Image: Johann Persson