Young Vic, London – until 17 November 2018
As opening statements go, Kwame Kwei-Armah’s musical adaptation of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, imported from New York’s Public Theater is probably as joyous a marker of future intent as you could wish for.
Boisterous, exuberant, bubbling with good spirit and in Robert Jones’ superb set design of street banners, corner shops and small bijoux houses, intimately located to the spirit of the Notting Hill Carnival. And by virtue of those banners – some nautical – perhaps even connected to the idea of Windrush.
Certainly, the design and opening moments give notice of a wonderfully joyful, inclusive atmosphere with the cast already dancing on stage, handing out food, and drawn from a large community chorus of all shapes, sizes, colours and ages, greeting friends in the audience. In short, a festival in the offing.
Kwei Armah’s conception indeed takes Shakespeare’s romantic comedy of disguises, gender confusions and misunderstandings and pumps new heart into it, one enjoyably upbeat for our troubled and divisive times.
The idea itself may not be all that new – Kiss Me, Kate, The Boys from Syracuse come to mind. And several decades ago, Trevor Nunn put the cat amongst the pigeons for the RSC by turning Comedy of Errors into a musical.
Kwei-Armah with Shaina Taub’s foot-tapping tunes and witty lyrics triumphantly tap into most of the play’s original themes whilst adding an irresistible zest all their own.
Together, they take the play’s gender confusion of Viola/Cesario and the thwarted loves of Orsino and Olivia and sprinkle them with a haunting pathos in the ballad, ‘Is this not love’, sung first by Melissa Allan’s Feste to Rupert Young’s love-lorn Count Orsino and then reprised by a full cast in the heart-pumping finale when all misunderstandings are resolved, marriages arranged and brother and sister are reunited – a moment that, if a production has done its job, in whatever form, never ever fails to move audiences.
At the Young Vic, there was a collective roar of delight as the siblings were once more reconciled.
© Johan Persson, Gabrielle Brooks as Cesario – who never told her love – and Rupert Young as Duke Orsino, confused about his attraction to this young courtier…
But the weight of the evening, inevitably falls on the young shoulders of Gabrielle Brooks as the temporarily male-dressing Cesario/ Viola.
Transgendered before the term was ever conceived of, Brooks proves a pocket-sized dynamo of a singer and extraordinarily convincing as a young man, by turns awkward and uncomfortable at Olivia’s advances and uncertain of her own identity. Taub captures this modern issue beautifully when Cesario sings of how differently men are treated when wearing trousers and of how lost she feels about her own identity.
There are many other high spots in Kwei-Armah and Taub’s production where every detail has been thought through, aided and abetted by Lizzi Gee’s dynamic choreography which hums with invention for the large cast and ensemble.
I loved the number for the posse of young women `the word on the street’, telling us the gossip going around the neighbourhood; even more the grilles and fences used to shepherd and contain the Cesario/Sir Andrew Aguecheek fight within the narrow street.
© Johan Persson, Gerard Carey as Malvolio, deliriously self-deluding and imagining another world as Olivia’s husband…
Most of all, I, like the rest of the audience, was captivated by Gerard Carey’s pompous city gent of a Malvolio who arrives, in a moment of mad comic absurdity, on a motorised scooter complete with safety crash helmet.
Carey goes on to sing a knock-out, top hat and tap dancing number of self-delusion after receiving Maria’s fake letter purporting to show Olivia’s love for him, finally turning his fury on the audience as he fumes with revenge at the perceived wrongs done to him but with his misplaced sense of superiority undimmed.
A masterly portrayal, Brooks too deserves every acclaim for her tender, vulnerable gender-bending Viola/Cesario with a voice to match that sometimes, unfortunately, as does Melissa Allan, slips into the now obligatory modern vibrato-pronged power singing. Sweeter by far, Rupert Young’s Duke Orsino and Natalie Dew’s Olivia.
© Johan Persson, Natalie Dew as a sweet-singing Olivia, equally confused about her attraction to the young Cesario…
In the end, too, I did wonder that very little was made of any homoerotic traces in the play – admittedly small but undeniably there between the sea captain, Antonio and Viola’s saved brother, Sebastian but an element that most modern RSC and Globe productions allude to in one way or another these days.
Otherwise and elsewhere, this is a production to brighten the darkest day, a celebration of inclusivity and diversity without labouring the point, and one that should certainly send an audience out a `high’, spirits soaring.
A celebration of London in all its melting pot wonder, it also beguilingly, to older eyes, is a reminder of where and how the Young Vic story all started: with Frank Dunlop and his sawdust, three ringed circus populist showmanship. Rough round the edges, no doubt but appealing and youth oriented, definitely.
Back to the future, here we go. Hold onto your hats. It’s going to be a terrific ride.
By William Shakespeare
A musical adaptation
Conceived by Kwame Kwei-Armah & Shaina Taub
Music & Lyrics by Shaina Taub
Feste: Melissa Allan
Viola: Gabrielle Brooks
Malvolio: Gerard Carey
Olivia: Natalia Dew
Sir Toby Belch: Martyn Ellis
Maria: Gbemisola Ikumelo
Sebastian: Jyuddah Jaymes
Antonio: Jonathan Livingstone
Fabian: Paul Willcocks
Sir Andrew Aguecheek: Silas Wyatt-Barke
Duke Orsino: Rupert Young
Conductor, 1st Keyboard: Sean Green
2nd Keyboard: Noam Galperin
Guitar, Ukelele: Matt Isaac
Bass: Daniel Francis Owen
Drums: Rob Parsons
Directors: Kwame Kwei Armah & Oskar Eustis
Set Designer: Robert Jones
Costume Designer: Brigitte Reiffenstuel
Choreographer: Lizzi Gee
Lighting Designer: Tim Lutkin
Sound Designer: Richard Brooker
Musical Director: Sean Green
Orchestrations: Mike Brun
Casting: Pippa Ailion CDG
Fight Director: Renny Krupinski
Associate Sound Designer: Josh Richardson
Assistant Choreographer: Iona Holland
Assistant Musical Director: Noam Galperin
Jerwood Assistant Director: Eva Sampson
Boris Karloff Trainee Assistant Director: Shayde Sinclair
Plus 60 strong Community Chorus:
Originally commissioned and produced by The Public Theater, Oskar Eustis, Artistic Director, Patrick Willingham, Executive Director
Eva Sampson is supported by the Jerwood Assistant Directors Program at the Young Vic
Twelfth Night is presented by arrangement with The Musical Company, New York
The Young Vic 2018 season is supported by Garfield Weston Foundation, Genesis Foundation, The Rcihenthal Foundation and The Sackler Trust.
British premiere of this production of Twelfth Night at the Young Vic Theatre, London, Oct 2, 2018. Runs to Nov 17, 2018.
Review published on this site, Oct 18, 2018
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