The Lyceum’s current production of Twelfth Night feels neither safe nor repetitive. There have been Shakespeare plays set retrospectively in the Swinging Sixties before now, but this riot of colour, music and quite a lot of shouting certainly has the power to make you sit up and take notice.
Twelfth Night is a fairly typical Shakespearean comedy. Half of the play is taken up by waspish aristocrats trying to fall in love, a pair of twins, and some cross-dressing. In the other half, a coarse mix of serving folk, oafish knights, and fools sing songs, play tricks on each other and get most of the best lines. And in the end, everyone gets married.
So far, so Shakespeare. However, director Wils Wilson’s use of the Sixties ambience does add some pep to the well-known story. The play features a lot of music, so suits being set in a decade so closely associated with it. A piano is used as often as a piece of scenery as a musical instrument, providing a neat metaphor for the integration of music into the play as a whole.
Most Shakespeare comedies are only a stage wig away from a spot of cross-dressing, and Twelfth Night is no exception. Wilson uses this as an opportunity to engage in discussions about gender fluidity, by having all of the lovers played by women.
The exception is Antonio, played by male actor Brian James O’Sullivan. His relationship with Sebastian (Joanne Thomson) is played definitively as a romantic, not platonic one. This creates a thought-provoking paradox, whereby the appearance of the actors as a heteronormative couple serves to draw attention to the queer interpretation of the relationship between the two male characters.
By queering the story in such a matter-of-fact way, Wilson shows us how accepting society can be towards non-binary, non-straight stories. However, the Sixties setting reminds us that such attitudes were not always the norm and that more regressive ways of thinking are not so far away today as we might like to think.
Unfortunately, this performance of Twelfth Night is undeniably too long, which does serve to distract from this thought-provoking take. Clocking in at a little over three hours with an interval, it inevitably has moments that lag. This was particularly apparent in the first half, with the drawn-out songs and extended stage-business leading to some very over-long scenes. The chaos of the stage-business itself was also at times an issue, with actors focussing so hard on careering around the space shouting that the subtle humour in the text was lost.
At the interval, it might look like this production is going to be a bold failure rather than an inspired success. However, from the moment the second act opens with a witty song and storming saxophone solo, the play never looks back. The revelation of Malvolio (Christopher Green) in an eye-wateringly tight, lemon yellow catsuit is a rousing, roof-raising moment, while Dylan’s Read’s Feste really comes to life. It’s like watching a different play from the rather meandering, sleepy opening.
The character of Malvolio feels particularly relevant today. Social media and 24/7 news has made us all complicit in the hounding of celebrities, and online abuse and bullying are more prevalent than ever. The audience of Twelfth Night egg on Malvolio’s tormentors, as we laugh riotously at his leather catsuit and awkward smile. We should (and do) feel guilty when he is brought to his lowest point and deserve his final, snarled ‘I’ll be revenged on the whole pack of you’, directed most definitely at us, the audience.
Ultimately, this edition of Twelfth Night is three hours of baggy, chaotic fun. The first half does drag, and the pacing is often slow. However, Wilson definitely brings a fresh eye to a well-known plot, and it’s an entertaining way to spend an evening. It might just make you think a bit too.
- By William Shakespeare
- Directed by Wils Wilson
- Cast includes: Christopher Green, Lisa Dwyer Hogg, Joanna Holden, Guy Hughes, Meilyr Jones, Aly Macrae, Jade Ogugua, Brian James O'Sullivan, Dylan Read, Dawn Sievewright, Colette Dalal Tchantcho, Joanne Thomson
- The Lyceum Theatre
- Until 6 October 2018