Twelfth Night at Shakespeare’s Globe is one in the eye for the stuffy purists as Emma Rice throws caution to the wind

Simon Thomson
Twelfth Night

Twelfth Night at The Globe is that rarest of things; a Shakespeare comedy that’s genuinely funny.

The script, of course, is as contrived and turgid as ever. Viola and Sebastian – identical but somehow different-sex twins – are separated in a shipwreck, and each, presuming the other drowned, decides that transvestism and masquerading as a servant are appropriate responses. The production is saved from itself by performers who, through both inflection and action, elevate the words to deliver something which is, in all its parts, a hugely enjoyable experience.

The visual design combines traditional Shakespeare with latter seasons of The Love Boat, replete with Officer and a Gentleman-style dress whites and atrocious mullets. Disco, Riverdance, Aran jumpers, Pringle golf-wear, kilts and y-fronts are all jarringly thrown together; a visual encapsulation of director Emma Rice’s disregard for tradition.

The production takes the play’s central conceit of cross-dressing and runs wild, resulting in a celebration of gender-fluidity. In addition to Viola (winningly played by Anita-Joy Uwajeh) passing herself off as Cesario, there is the jester Feste, played here as an almost god-like narrator by cabaret drag artiste Le Gateau Chocolat; who with mellifluous vocals and billowing gold-sequined gown, is the fabulous lovechild of Gloria Gaynor and a disco globe.

Marc Antolin’s extravagantly camp Sir Andrew Aguecheek is a throwback to the stock gay characters of 70s sitcoms, which seems a little out of place, but his frequent pratfalls, followed by a chirrupy “I’m OK!” are funny nonetheless. Most interesting, though, is the casting of Rice’s MVP Katy Owen in a trouser role as Malvolio, who in this version is a feisty, irascible, Welsh referee. Amid a sea of fine comic performances, Owen’s physicality stands out. In contrast to all this, the thrusting hyper-masculinity of Joshua Lacey’s Orsino seems especially silly.

Sir Toby Belch (Tony Jayawardena), resplendent in powder blue jacket, ruffle shirt and kilt, leads a coterie of minor characters whose mischievous shenanigans are also greatly entertaining, particularly in the scene where they pretend to be a shrubbery.

The production plays fast and loose with the source material, and will no doubt further infuriate the purists who objected so strongly to Emma Rice’s tenure as creative director that she’s been asked to move on. But it’s a great deal of fun, and some first-rate trolling.

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