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Review - Twelfth Night at the Rose Playhouse

30 April 2019 | Daniel Pateman

This exuberant adaptation of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, set aboard an ocean liner in the “Roaring Twenties”, is an intoxicating romp. You don’t need to be a fan of The Bard to enjoy this production’s dose of glamour, musical theatre and farcical fun…but a synopsis might help!

Theatre company OVO’s adaptation of Twelfth Night is ideal for those who find Shakespeare’s prose impenetrable, with their intention being “to provide universally accessible and enjoyable entertainment for more casual theatregoers, whilst satisfying Shakespeare aficionados and honouring the great man’s legacy”. Indeed, the actors’ evident grasp of the text, and the playfulness of their performances, conveys the thrust of the play without a necessary knowledge of the source material. The fact it made me grin throughout its 95-minute duration is a testament to their accessible approach.
 
Twelfth Night is a tale of excess, mistaken identity and frustrated desires that affirms the wisdom that “the course of true love never did run smooth.” When non-identical twins Viola and Sebastian are separated by a shipwreck, Viola is washed ashore on the island of Illyria. Disguising herself as a male, ‘Cesario’ befriends the Duke Orsino, who sends ‘him’ to woo the noblewoman Olivia on his behalf. Olivia becomes smitten by Cesario instead, while Cesario/Viola develops feelings for Orsino. The priggish Malvolio also loves Olivia, but is found contemptible by Sir Toby Belch, Olivia’s fool Feste and her servant Maria. They subsequently persuade him to act in eccentric ways to gain Olivia’s affection. When he does, he is thought mad and imprisoned. Sebastian meanwhile arrives on Illyria, causing great confusion with his resemblance to his twin; but when the two siblings finally reunite, everyone’s folly is revealed.
 
Director Adam Nichols has updated the play to reflect the hedonistic 1920s: enhancing the source material’s themes of festivity, gender, and music. Olivia (Emma Watson - no, not that one) becomes a glamourous celebrity, while the island becomes an ocean liner named the SS Illyria. The effectively minimal staging effortlessly shifts from sun-drenched deck to a nightclub-like setting, with a piano doubling as a cocktail-strewn bar and a microphone descending from the ceiling. Meanwhile, two typically male roles are cast as female, so that, in a play where gender is already contested, Shakespeare’s exploration of sexuality is granted bolder treatment. Malvolio becomes the delightfully haughty Malvolia (Faith Turner), whose unambiguous same-sex affection for Olivia emboldens the play’s homoerotic undercurrents.
 
Committed to embracing a wider audience, the performances are broadly realised without sacrificing the nuances of the play, with its humour astutely conveyed even if some of the plot’s intricacies are obscured. There is something of the bravado of a Carry On film in this production: particularly the scene in which Olivia coerces a reluctant Viola (Lucy Crick) to sunbathe alongside her. With comedic trepidation, Viola maintains her masculine façade by wrapping a towel around her chest and stuffing a flannel down her trousers. Meanwhile, frequent re-arrangements of modern pop hits, like Ricky Martin’s ‘Livin’ La Vida Loca’ and Britney Spears’ ‘Toxic’, bring an irreverent energy to proceedings. Hannah Francis-Baker in particular displays an impressive vocal gusto, in addition to her dynamic physicality, as Feste.
 
Although the depiction of Sir Andrew Aguecheek as the tweed wearing “upper class twit” feels a stroke too broad, and the physical differences between actors Lucy Crick and Joshua Newman makes it seem inconceivable they could be confused for one another, this Twelfth Night is undoubtedly a fast-paced joy: vivacious, engaging and deliciously entertaining.
 
Twelfth Night is at the Rose Playhouse, London, from 23rd April to the 5th May 2019
 
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