Twelfth Night (2018)

Rupert stars as the Duke Orsino in this musical adaptation of Shakespeare’s play Twelfth Night. The adaptation was conceived by Kwame Kwei-Armah and Shaina Taub, with Taub writing the music and lyrics, and is co-directed by Kwame Kwei-Armah and Oskar Eustis. It is Kwei-Armah’s first offering as Artistic Director at the Young Vic Theatre.

The show runs from 2 October to 17 November 2018 at the Young Vic in London. More details and tickets available at the official website.

You can read an interesting interview with Gabrielle Brooks (Viola) by Kate Berrington, about the accessibility of Shakespeare, in the British Vogue, 14 October 2018.

The banner is from a production photo by Johan Persson, sourced on the Young Vic page on Facebook.

Julie’s Response (with spoilers)

I’ve been lucky enough to see this play twice now, and I’ve loved it. I have to admit to being a bit wary the first time, as the reviews (quoted below) had led me to fear the play was Not Quite Shakespeare, and maybe there wouldn’t be enough Orsino, either. So I was very relieved to find that none of this was so.

The story we’re already familiar with from Shakespeare’s play was certainly compressed in this adaptation, but it was all in there. (And it’s not one of his longer plays, anyway.) The romance and comedy from the original was emphasised in this version, and the cruelty and pain featured less so, but again it was all there. Or maybe I just didn’t miss a lesser emphasis on the aspects of the play I find most challenging and/or problematic…?

Or maybe we feel the pain less because in this production Malvolio retains his self-love, his belief in his own intrinsic greatness, despite being so cruelly dealt with. I’ve seen productions which end things very bitterly, with Sir Toby’s marriage to Maria being foreshadowed as disastrous, Malvolio’s threat of revenge coming from a broken man, Feste alone, Andrew Aguecheek dismissed, and so on. This adaptation does not interpret the outcomes in such ways, and I don’t know that there’s any reason in the original text why it shouldn’t do so. Why not, instead, end with not only the main romances being properly aligned, but also with a joyous song including everyone in a renewed community, and Orsino and Antonio (formerly wartime enemies) shaking hands in a spirit of kindness and reconciliation…?

The themes of this show are love and joy, acceptance of others as they are, and having the courage to be one’s own full self. To find such subject matter in Twelfth Night is no stretch at all.

Much of the spoken dialogue came directly from Shakespeare, and the lyrics were often inspired by the original play as well. I can’t imagine Shakespeare himself being fastidious about such a joyous and accessible experience. He created popular entertainment, too, after all!

As for Rupert … oh, he does play a lover so very well! Orsino isn’t exactly the largest role in the original play. However, this adaptation focuses more on the confused triangle of love between Orsino, Olivia and Cesario/Viola, and so we are blessed with more Rupert than I’d feared! Alas, he is absent for a longish stretch in the latter parts of the play, but he has so much lovely stuff to do in the early parts and in the last scenes, that I can cope with that.

It’s not unexpected to find Rupert called “effortlessly charming” in reviews, including one reviewer this time who wondered why on earth Olivia was resisting him at all! But we know that love doesn’t work like that, or at least not in this play. It was sweet to watch Orsino feeling heart-wrenched by Olivia, but also responding despite himself to Cesario. Right from the start he’s noticing Cesario’s irresistible smile, and soon he’s returning it in kind. (This comes with extra frisson, as Brooks is the most convincing Cesario I’ve seen.) The love triangle is all very genuine, as is the resolution once Sebastian makes a fourth – which compares nicely to the irresponsible antics of Sir Toby’s crew, and to Malvolio’s self-important dramatics.

Everyone does an absolutely terrific job here, though my heart was mostly caught up by Rupert, Gabrielle Brooks (Cesario/Viola) and Natalie Dew (Olivia). There is lots of laughter and lots of energy along the way, and only one scene which left me a bit indifferent. The community chorus were superb, and it was great to see they were diverse in all kinds of ways – including age, with a few older characters. Inclusion is, self-evidently, the way to go!

So, it’s five stars and three cheers from me for the Young Vic and the artistic directions of Kwame Kwei-Armah!

Reviews

Review Round-Up by Fergus Morgan, The Stage, 10 October 2018.

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 Night may 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. … 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. … 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. … 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. 3.5 stars from Maryam PhilpottThe Reviews Hub, 12 October 2018

And of course, a fully diverse cast is employed here, mixing races but not, as Rice did, genders. Among the warm-hearted actors, there’s hilarious work from Martin Ellis as Sir Toby Belch, Silas Wyatt-Barke as Sir Andrew Aguecheek, and Gbemisola Ikumelo as Maria, all conspiring against Gerard Carey’s pompous Malvolio, and a sweetly-earnest romantic sincerity from Rupert Young as Orsino, Natalia Dew as Olivia and Gabrielle Brooks as Viola. There’s also the addition of a community chorus of some 30 performers drawn from the local area. In a programme note, Kwei-Armah and the theatre’s executive director Despina Tsatsas applaud them: “they are not trained actors; they are our wonderful neighbours and friends performing alongside a sensational cast of consummate professional actors and musicians. We think that’s pretty special.” They’re right: it’s great to put the community that has always been at the centre of the Young Vic’s ethos as a theatre at the centre of its stage. … The show is a lot of fun, and a terrific start of a new chapter for the Young Vic. 4 stars from Mark Shenton, LondonTheatre.co.uk, 9 October 2018

Once the cast and a community chorus of 30 people hand out pieces of jerk chicken inside the auditorium, spilling out from Robert Jones’s brightly coloured, stylised Notting Hill carnival street set, the good times really began to roll. This very loose musical version of Shakespeare’s comedy with music and lyrics by Shaina Taub, is far from perfect, but its benign heart and inclusive warmth make it a welcoming touchstone for the kind of theatre Kwei-Armah wants to produce. … As Viola, Gabrielle Brooks is a gentle joy, lending warmth and pathos to her love scenes with Rupert Young’s awkward Orsino. Natalie Drew makes Olivia’s violent mood swings both funny and understandable, and Gbemisola Ikumelo is a fine, feisty Maria and Melissa Allan a strong-voiced Feste. 4 stars from Sarah Crompton, WhatsOnStage, 8 October 2018

Shakespeare has never been so accessible. This sparkling revamp of Twelfth Night fizzes away like a Berocca and injects vitality and much-needed zazz into the Bard’s ridiculous tale of gender-swapping, mistaken identity, and social and sexual politics… all to an infectious urban soundtrack. … I was slightly concerned about hearing the opening number, ‘If Music Be the Food Of Love’, I presume it was called, as it was underwhelming musically and lyrically. But by the end of the show, I was on my feet along with the rest of the audience. … The feel-good, party atmosphere of this production is infectious, and I defy anyone to leave without a smile on their face. 5 stars from Craig Glenday, Musical Theatre Review, 9 October 2018

The Notting Hill Carnival comes to Illyria, bathing its mournful sadness in music and colour; this concept couldn’t be more apt, given the tragedies the West London community has gone through in recent times, though coming out as resilient as ever. … With the nights starting to draw in and the temperatures dropping, this production brings a blast of summer sun into your life, radiating positivity and joy – Kwame Kwei-Armah has set the bar really high for the Young Vic’s new era. This is theatre at its best and most inspiring. 5 stars from Debbie Gilpin, Broadway World UK, 9 October 2018

… It will be hugely popular but, without wishing to be a party pooper, I kept thinking it could be even better. … But the good things about the show are very good indeed. … But, all cavils aside, the show gets Kwei-Armah’s Young Vic regime off to a festive, celebratory start. After the cakes and ale, I wait impatiently for the more substantial fare to come. 3 stars from Michael Billington, The Guardian, 9 October 2018

… And if Kwei-Armah’s production, credited to him and the powerhouse American impresario Oskar Eustis, under whose New York Shakespeare Festival auspices the show first began, can sometimes get a bit clap-happy for its own good, one can only submit to the abundant cheer of a show that must be a hoot and a holler to be in. Sure, Shakespeare himself sometimes gets tossed aside in the interest of filleting a complex meditation on sexual and social fluidity into 95 largely-frolicsome minutes. … Twelfth Night, in turn, allows room for grief: the opening image of a hearse sets the scene for the mournful Olivia (the ever-delightful Natalie Dew), who is resistent to the advances of Orsino – though quite why, given the effortless charm of Rupert Young in the role, is open for debate. Olivia’s diffidence allows her to fall hard instead for Orsino’s newly-recruited emissary, Cesario, who is in fact the shipwrecked Viola … This central trio are wonderful, singly and collectively, and share some of the more plaintive harmonies of a score that makes one wonder what Taub might bring to the landscape of Chekhov, given her apparent affinity to the realm of heartache. 3 stars from Matt Wolf, The Arts Desk, 9 October 2018

… takes a while to find its rhythm. But in the end it has an irrepressible sense of fun, and the message is a clear one: the themes of his new regime will be accessibility, empathy, generosity and inclusiveness. 4 stars from Henry Hitchings, Go London, 10 October 2018

It’s pacey and sunny and you’re never more than a couple of minutes from one of Taub’s songs, exuberant numbers that run the gamut from vaudeville to ’80s-style electro ballad via stomping Motown soul, and wisely avoid faux Shakespearean lyrics. And if it occasionally gives things the air of a prodigiously good school play, the community chorus is excellent at magnifying the impact of the songs, a rush of choreographic cheer and vocal firepower. Stuff gets lost in the edit – Young‘s Orsino barely gets a look in – and I’m not convinced I’d have a totally firm handle on what was going on generally if I didn’t know already. And, by the by, I wasn’t that fond of Silas Wyatt-Barke‘s grossly culturally stereotyped Eastern European Andrew Aguecheek. But Kwei-Armah and Eustis know what to focus on to make the night pop, and that is Gerard Casey’s superb Malvolio. 4 stars from Andrzej Lukowski, Time Out London, 9 October 2018

The setting is Notting Hill just before Carnival, and Rupert Young’s lovelorn Orsino has a touch of Hugh Grant as he woos Natalie Drew’s deeply uninterested Olivia who lives in the town house over the road on which all the action is set. Instead of drinking sack, spliffs are inhaled and Shakespeare’s daft, gender-blurring plot is driven at breakneck speed by Shaina Taub’s melodically pretty and lyrically witty score. Melissa Allan’s fool Feste and Gabrielle Brooks’s Viola have the best songs and voices. The one gripe relates to one of the show’s strengths — Carey’s Malvolio. His comeuppance should be so cruel as to induce shame in all those who have enjoyed his humiliation — including us. But here it’s just an excuse for another musical Malvolio moment, denying this feelgood show emotional heft. 3 stars from John Nathan, Metro, 10 October 2018

2 thoughts on “Twelfth Night (2018)”

  1. You will love it – exuberant, full of song and dance and energy, not always the case with matinee performances. We were too far to the L to fully appreciate Rupert first appearance but if you are centre or slightly to the right (facing the stage) you will see him perfectly. The voices were all wonderful, the diction clear and I agree with the comments above about Malvolio! If you are sitting downstairs near the front, you may get some street food. We had a very happy school party in front of us who fell on the plates like locusts! Everyone did come out with happy smiles!

    1. Thank you so much for the report, Bess! I’m delighted that you enjoyed the play so much. I am very much looking forward to seeing it – for the play’s own sake, as well as for Rupert. :-) Here’s to many more shared exuberant theatrical experiences in our future! ♥

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