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Emma Rice’s Twelfth Night at Shakespeare’s Globe – review round-up

A scene from Twelfth Night at Shakespeare's Globe. Photo: Tristram Kenton
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Emma Rice’s valedictory summer season at Shakespeare’s Globe started with a bang and is only getting louder. After Daniel Kramer’s raucous Romeo and Juliet, which got a lukewarm reception from the critics, comes Rice’s own Twelfth Night, her last main-house production of a troubled two years in charge.

We all know the issues at stake by now – shared light vs sound and fury, austere reverence vs impish invention, original purpose vs new audience – and we all know on which side of the debate Rice and the Globe’s board position themselves.

Rice was never going to capitulate to the purists here. Her Twelfth Night reimagines Illyria as a remote Scottish island in the late ’70s, and makes Sebastian and Viola’s stricken ship a partying cruise-liner. It casts Katy Owen as Malvolio and Le Gateau Chocolat – a celebrated drag queen – as Feste. It revels in light, sound, song and dance, and relentlessly messes around with the text. It is, as one critic observes, “essence of Rice”.
But does it float the critics’ boat, or leave them stranded in a sea of incomprehension? Does Rice sign off with a hectic Hebridean hooray, or a galling Gaelic goodbye? Does the Globe’s Summer of Love season belatedly burst into life or does a cloud of internal conflict still overshadow the South Bank?

If review round-ups be the food of love, Fergus Morgan will play on.

Twelfth Night – Very midsummer madness

A scene from Twelfth Night. Photo: Tristram Kenton

Kramer’s Romeo and Juliet earlier this summer presented audiences with a messy mash-up of cultural touchstones, ranging from Mexico’s Day Of The Dead festival to Village People’s YMCA to Breaking Bad to the Cuban Missile Crisis. What does Rice’s Twelfth Night offer up?

“Shakespearean traditionalists – and presumably the majority of the Globe’s board – will be having conniptions within two minutes flat,” observes Fiona Mountford (Evening Standard, ★★★). “The action starts on the SS Unity, a ship where it’s all white-clad sailors, 1970s disco, sequins and a rendition of We Are Family.”

“The inventions and irritations keep coming thick and fast in a show in which music is accorded high importance,” she continues. “The text has been sharply cut, many old-fashioned words have been altered and some things appear to have been jiggered about with just for the hell of it.”

“It revels in the very features that helped to bring about Rice’s rejection – hot flushes of coloured lighting and cheeky interpolations to the text,” confirms Paul Taylor (Independent, ★★★), while Mark Shenton (The Stage, ★★★) notes that “watching this version of Twelfth Night, with its giddy, strutting irreverence, it’s hard not to think that Rice is sometimes intent on provoking the Globe board that rejected her.”

“The play is perfectly present and correct, but it is freely embellished and fulsomely overdone,” explains Matt Trueman (What’s On Stage, ★★★★). “There are pop songs and dance routines, sometimes even swerves into full-blown musical theatre as composer Ian Ross sets Shakespearean verse to song. We get prat falls and variety turns, big wigs and drag queens, and, as in Kneehigh’s work, clownish caricatures instead of credible characters.”

“This production of Shakespeare’s great comedy is very much Twelfth Night — The Musical,” asserts Ann Treneman (Times, ★★).

Twelfth Night –Something lost, something gained

Annette McLaughlin and John Pfumojena in Twelfth Night. Photo: Tristram Kenton

The eclecticism of Kramer’s Romeo and Juliet did not go down well with most critics, Dominic Cavendish labelling it “provocative and profoundly tedious” and Michael Billington lambasting “another example of vandalised Shakespeare”. What do the critics think of Rice’s irreverence here?
Some still object, albeit less vehemently. “While Rice creates a party atmosphere,” writes Billington (Guardian, ★★), “she fails to capture the delicately interwoven mix of high-spirited fun and grave melancholy that makes this Shakespeare’s most imperishable comedy.”

“What’s lost, quite simply, is any sense of depth in the narrative itself, not to mention the rich, swirling ambiguity, often concerning matters sexual, that prevails in Illyria,” concurs Mountford. “It’s exuberant, anarchic, accessible and quite, quite maddening.”

“What’s missing,” Taylor agrees, “is any real recognition of the emotional depth and haunting strangeness of this play. There’s nothing elusive or frisson-inducing about the gender confusions, which are mostly played as knockabout, and the show is never still enough to sound a note of wonder or probing uncertainty.”

But others simply revel in Rice’s inventive panache. “I watched much of the show with a broad smile on my face, both for its audacity and downright cheek,” Shenton admits, while Quentin Letts (Daily Mail, ★★★★★) hails “the most entertaining, exciting Twelfth Night for years”.

“It’s entertaining, heartfelt, and extremely uplifting,” writes Debbie Gilpin (Broadway World, ★★★★★), and Rosemary Waugh (Exeunt) agrees. “It would take a cynic with a heart of granite to read this as a ‘f*** you’ to anyone, including Rice’s detractors,” she asserts.

“Rice finds in Twelfth Night a brilliant reminder that, set against love and life, melancholy can be a little overrated,” concludes Sarah Crompton (The Observer, ★★★★), while Andrzej Lukowski (Time Out, ★★★★), recalling Rice’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream last year, thinks that “the collision of her expansive whimsy and Shakespeare’s wild, freeform comedy once again hits home with this joyous cuddle of a production”.

Trueman and Cavendish (Telegraph, ★★★★) occupy the middle ground. “Is this a poignant Twelfth Night? Not particularly,” admits Cavendish. “Yet it achieves what critics of this new regime have found wanting in too many of its shows – a joyous complicity between player and space, and a warm audience rapport too.”

“Great art? Probably not,” concedes Trueman. “Great fun? You bet.”

Twelfth Night – Some are born great, some achieve greatness

Le Gateau Chocolat in Twelfth Night. Photo: Tristram Kenton

The National Theatre’s well-reviewed Twelfth Night, which closed earlier this month, made headlines for casting a woman – Tamsin Greig – as Malvolio. Rice’s production follows suit, although, unlike Greig’s, Katy Owen’s Malvolio isn’t gender-flipped: it’s just a woman playing a man. And it’s received enthusiastically by most.

“Katy Owen’s tightly-wound, moustachioed neurotic comes close to stealing the show,” writes Alexandra Coghlan (The Arts Desk, ★★★). “Equipped with a games mistress-style whistle, a nice tartan dressing gown and a spiky bagful of over-enunciated consonants, she turns the excesses of Tony Jayawardena’s Sir Toby and Marc Antolin’s lisping Sir Andrew into a foil for her own buttoned-up comedy rather than the other way around.”

“Katy Owen is an inspired Malvolio,” agrees Michael Adair (TheatreCat, ★★★★), “shifting ceaselessly between comic and tragic, a character who explodes before our very eyes in a burst of mad energy, to be seen wildly humping a tree in a fit of passion before ultimately giving us the play’s sincerest glimpse at poignancy.”

“Katy Owen is superb — fantastic, ace, whatever superlative you like — as Malvolio,” echoes Letts, while Cavendish asserts that “Owen, every bone a funny one, is quite the biggest hoot on the London stage.”
She does have her detractors, though. Mountford reckons she “loses pathos by hectic over-emphasis” and Treneman opines that “her character rarely gets beyond guffaw level.”

The other high-profile casting is that of cabaret artist and drag-queen Le Gateau Chocolat as Feste. According to Gilpin, the “insatiable” performer is “ingeniously cast” and according to Lukowski he’s “transcendentally fabulous”, but for Mountford, he “singularly fails to capture any of the character’s unique and melancholy wisdom”.

And the rest of the cast? For Cavendish, they provide “a heap of fine performances”, for Taylor they “perform with terrific gusto”, and for Gilpin they are “incredibly well put together”.

Twelfth Night – Is it any good?

Rice hasn’t kowtowed to her critics, that’s for sure. Her Twelfth Night is as unabashedly untraditional as everything during her tenure as artistic director has been. It boasts an exuberant cast – blessed with a widely lauded performance from Katy Owen as Malvolio – and even some of Rice’s staunchest opponents admit that it generates mountains of feel-good energy.
Five-star reviews from the Daily Mail and Broadway World contrast with two-stars from Michael Billington in the Guardian and Ann Treneman in The Times. The majority of critics slot themselves somewhere in between. Rice’s Twelfth Night is a lot of fun, most agree, but a lot of Shakespeare’s nuanced melancholy and his flirtation with gender-roles is lost along the way. What else were you expecting?


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