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Twelfth Night by Kwame Kwei-Armah at the Young Vic – review round-up

Gabrielle Brooks and Rupert Young. Photo: Johan Persson Gabrielle Brooks and Rupert Young. Photo: Johan Persson
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Here we go, here we go, here we go: Kwame Kwei-Armah’s hotly anticipated first season as artistic director of the Young Vic opens with a fanfare and a radically reworked, music-infused version of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night.

The show, created by Kwame, New York Public Theater boss Oskar Eustis, and American composer Shaina Taub, actually premiered in Central Park two years ago, then ran again there earlier this year. It’s been refashioned for a British audience for its transatlantic trip – Orsino’s Illyria is now, in fact, Notting Hill.

And it’s carnival time. The professional cast – which includes Gerard Carey, Gabrielle Brooks and Rupert Young – are joined on stage by a community chorus of 60 people, drawn from the local areas of Lambeth and Southwark.

But does Kwame kick off his tenure with a terrific Twelfth Night? Or does his reign get off to a rocky start? What do the critics make of his first outing as artistic director?

Fergus Morgan rounds up the reviews.

Twelfth Night – Sacrificing Shakespeare

Kwame, Eustis and Taub have drastically diced up Shakespeare’s script, stuffed it full of songs, and cut it down to just 90 minutes. Do the reviewers reckon it’s a reasonable revamp? Well, some do, some don’t, and most are having too much fun to care.

“If anything defines Twelfth Night, it is its opal-like blend of laughter and sadness, gender confusion and sense of mortality,” writes Michael Billington (Guardian, ★★★), “But, though Taub’s score has occasional moments of poignancy as in Feste’s ballad, Is This Not Love?, the prevailing note is one of high-spirited fun.”

“After the cakes and ale, I wait impatiently for the more substantial fare to come,” he concludes, while Dominic Cavendish (Telegraph, ★★★) observes how “the emphasis has swung from ‘the rain it raineth every day’ melancholy to overly sun-kissed comedy” and Matt Wolf (The Arts Desk, ★★★) reckons the show is “a bit clap-happy for its own good”.

“The original plot is intact, with its gender fluidity, mistaken identities and celebration of love’s madness,” describes Henry Hitchings (Evening Standard, ★★★★). “But a lot of the poetry has been axed, along with the story’s darker shades of cruelty and most of its subtleties.”

Photo: Johan Persson
Natalie Dew. Photo: Johan Persson

“If you want uncut, elegant Shakespeare this will be anathema,” he points out. “Instead it’s an ebullient romance served with a sizeable dollop of silliness.”

Shakespeare’s soul-stirring sadness is out the window then, but unlike Billington, most critics don’t miss it too much. “It’s not very Shakespearean, or very subtle. But it is undoubtedly fun,” writes Sarah Crompton (WhatsOnStage, ★★★★) while Ian Shuttleworth (Financial Times, ★★★★) cheers over “an all-singing, all-dancing, all-capering non-stop fun-fest”.

“While textual and sexual complexity get tossed on the rocks along with emotional nuance, there’s little in the way of digging into gender identity, and some of the secondary plot strands have been all but obliterated, it sort of doesn’t matter, or doesn’t matter much,” chimes Natasha Tripney (The Stage, ★★★★). “This is a big, bright and lively staging that exhorts its audience to walk in the shoes and look through the eyes of others.”

“There is harder stuff programmed for later in the season,” says Andrzej Lukowski (Time Out, ★★★★). “For now, let’s party.”

Twelfth Night – Carnival time

Shakespeare’s mix of melancholy and comedy has been swept away in a tide of good cheer, and most critics don’t really mind. But what do they think of Taub’s tunes and Robert Jones’ design?

Jones’ design gets a big thumbs up. “The fantasy dukedom of Illyria has been moved to Notting Hill as it prepares for carnival,” explains Ann Treneman (Times, ★★★★). “The designer Robert Jones has created a throbbing street scene of multicoloured terraced villas, with flags and disco lights overhead, that allows for much singing from open windows and general door slamming.”

“It’s a fancy dress party, basically,” Treneman decides, and everyone agrees. It’s “marvellous” and “witty and practical” according to Crompton, and “dazzlingly colourful” according to Lukowski.

Photo: Johan Persson
Cast of Twelfth Night. Photo: Johan Persson

Taub’s score is a bit more divisive. Some critics love them: the songs are “exuberant numbers that run the gamut from vaudeville to ’80s-style electro ballad via stomping Motown soul and wisely avoid faux Shakespearean lyrics” according to Lukowski, and they’re “multi-purpose and often thrilling” according to Wolf.

There’s also admiration for Taub’s ability to make sense of the plot through her tunes. They do “the bulk of the narrative legwork”, according to Tripney, and according to Crompton, Taub is “good at finding the themes of the play and decking them out in song and dance numbers”.

But it’s not all good news. “Some of the songs, truthfully, are pretty wallpaper-like and unmemorable,” adds Crompton. “And there are moments when the collision between their contemporary colloquialism and the few remaining words of Shakespearean dialogue becomes too obvious.”

Twelfth Night – Comedy and community

A good party needs partygoers. Alongside a mammoth community ensemble, Kwame’s cast includes Gerard Carey as Malvolio and Gabrielle Brooks as Viola.

Carey is the star of the show. His “hilariously played” Malvolio is “a smug git who whizzes about the streets on an electrified scooter” according to Billington.

“He brings brio and perfect comic timing to proceedings,” agrees Crompton. “The slow turn of his head, while he is still standing on the scooter, as he looks with contempt at Cesario, is a masterpiece in itself.”

“Part-Basil Fawlty, part-King George from Hamilton, part-panto villain, his moustachioed snob is an absolute hoot, powered by camp music hall style numbers, a hoverboard, and an outrageous one piece Lycra jogging outfit,” piles in Lukowski.

There’s plenty of praise for Brooks as well. Her Viola is “wonderfully expressive” for Cavendish, “vocally rich” for Hitchings, and for Crompton she’s “a gentle joy, lending warmth and pathos to her love scenes with Rupert Young’s awkward Orsino.”

Photo: Johan Persson
Gerard Carey and cast. Photo: Johan Persson

And what about that enormous ensemble of amateur actors? Their inclusion is “a great, generous-spirited gesture of inclusive theatre” according to John Nathan (Metro, ★★★), and they’re not half bad either, according to the critics.

“The community chorus is excellent at magnifying the impact of the songs, a rush of choreographic cheer and vocal firepower,” writes Lukowski, while Billington admires them for their ability to “execute Lizzi Gee’s choreography with absolute precision”.

“They include, in a welcome touch, a handful of seniors and are ultimately indistinguishable from the professionals,” he smiles, while Mark Shenton (London Theatre, ★★★★) remarks how “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”.

Twelfth Night – Is it any good?

If you like your Shakespeare straightforward and spoken as it always has been, then Kwame Kwei-Armah’s season opener might not be for you. But if you’re in the mood for an exuberant, inclusive party – with a hint of Shakespeare lurking somewhere underneath – then this radical reworking might be right up your street.

There’s a few grumbles about the traditional tone of Twelfth Night being lost amid the mayhem, but most critics can’t help but enjoy themselves. There’s bundles of four-star ratings, bundles of good will for this show, and bundles of eager anticipation for the forthcoming fare of Kwame’s first season.

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