The Young Vic Theatre
It can sometimes be more difficult to review a show you didn’t like than one you – just repeating “I loved it” four hundred times might feel proportionate but not very informative for the reader. Lucky, then, that the Young Vic’s musical Twelfth Night was both brilliant and surprisingly meaty.
The production was borrowed from New York’s Shakespeare in the Park (a yearly event I have been longing to go to – the closest I have got was the Shakespeare garden in Central Park and it was snowing), but the action moved to Notting Hill, the stage a set of those tall Victorian buildings with the road extending into the auditorium and coming complete with unfinished roadworks which made it almost impossible to get to the programme-seller. The move may have made sense from a directorial perspective (and certainly many of the characters transferred nicely) but left a few musical gaps – such as any kind of reggae or ska influence, and not a hint of a steel band – frankly unbelievable in the Notting Hill I grew up with.*
Painting a fair bit of my own prejudices about the area onto the action was easy. Orsino was the owner of a pub (the Duke of Illyria) – with absolutely the air of a posh, well-monied newcomer to the area (I could probably tell exactly what his pub served as bar snacks). Olivia was the kind of long-established family holdout (they seemed to run the café opposite) who seems a little adrift without the bulwark of brother and father. And there were wastrels (Toby Belch) and waifs (Feste) enough for the area – as well as a surprising playing of Sir Andre Aguecheek as an indeterminately-Eastern-European gangster wannabe. One of the great glories of the production was the backing chorus – a community choir local to the theatre, they were absolutely great (especially the sequinned ladies who acted as storytellers) and having as much fun as the rest of us.
A short running time and the necessary demands of song-and-numbers implies a lot of the action must have been cut, but I didn’t feel anything was lacking – we had the love triangle, the humiliation of Malvolio, and a reasonable amount of time even for Sebastian and Antonio. What I suspect it did was allow was for some to take a heavy hand (and a clear conscience) to cutting the text back to what they wanted to say – and then underscoring some of those messages in song.**
And that message really centred around Gabrielle Brooks’s Viola. Her story was about borrowing strength from someone else, until you find your own – mirrored in her brother (and, a little at least, in Olivia – and isn’t it funny how quickly we forget the way Olivia’s story starts the same way as Viola’s, with the death of a brother). Gabrielle was excellent in at least three different roles – Viola at the start, grieving and uncertain, Cesario, Orsino’s man and slightly gawky youth, and the Viola she became who learnt to enjoy life, to take her own part in it with pleasure, and not rely on either her brother or Orsino as a prop (or risk that prop becoming an essential crutch).
The play was also, more than a little, about the different forms love can take. Orsino’s painful obsession with Olivia was definitely love at a distance – the moment when he hesitated about (and ultimate decided against) knocking on her door showed so clearly that he didn’t have a clue what he wanted to do with her. The easy camaraderie he shared with Viola was the love of friends – Rupert Young played Orsino’s realisation that Viola was a woman as a sort of socially awkward thank-god-a-woman-I-can-talk-to, rather than the thank-god-she’s-a-woman-and-I’m-not-sexually-confused moment Oliver Chris gave us in the National Theatre production. And there was buckets of yearning – Viola for Orsino, Jonathan Livingstone’s sweet Antonio for Sebastian*** and, most interestingly, Melissa Allan’s lost little Feste who seemed desperate to be in on any of the relationships being formed, no matter how doomed they seemed to be.
There must also have been some form of love between Maria and Toby Belch – no reason else why Gbemisola Ikumelo’s fierce and fun lady (who was clearly in charge of the whole household, including Olivia) would have married Martyn Ellis’s impressively loathsome old sot. Certainly not for his choice of friends – Paul Willcocks’s Fabian seemed the ultimately weaselly hanger-on, while Silas Wyatt-Barke gave Sir Andrew an entirely repellent personality – all cowardice and braggadocio wrapped with, as I said, an improbable and inexplicable east-European accent. Still, it meant the fight between him and Viola was spectacular in its awful-ness (and I seem to recall it came with rather a fun song****). And the love Olivia felt for Cesario – well, that was all lust, wonderfully played by Natalie Dew. The scenes when she went after Cesario were only bettered by the scenes when she got her hands on Jyuddah James’s surprised-but-not-all-unwilling Sebastian.
Thrown into this mix was Gerard Carey’s Malvolio. I’d call him scene-stealing but to be honest he ran off the whole damn show, and we were all egging him on. His buttoned-up fusspot exterior opened out in song into a tap-dancing legend, his cross-gartering was some truly hideous yellow lycra and his every moment on stage was joy. I defy you not to have “Count Malvolio” stuck in your head for at least a week.
It was bright, breezy, and brilliant. I had a smile on my face five minutes in and it didn’t wear off until long after I’d got home. I would, quite genuinely, have gone to see it again if it hadn’t been sold out. I loved it. I loved it. I – well, you get the idea…
* At least it was missing to my ears which I will admit are not fully trained. I don’t think I would have missed a steel band if there had been one, though!
** See what I did there.
*** And I really would like a happy ending for him JUST ONCE. Also, there’s no way that man was ever a pirate. He is far too nice. So I really want to know what went down that led to Orsino capturing him. Please, internet hive-mind, find me this fan-fiction!
**** Albeit one which implied the NY version had a boxing match while this version went for fencing. Is this a function of what stage combat is taught each side of the Pond? I can’t think why else you would make the switch – we do box over here, and I’m pretty sure in Notting Hill a ring would be easier to come by than a pair of rapiers…