“I hope it’s the biggest fuck you to the Globe board.” I said in an email to a friend on Wednesday morning. I realised even at the time that this was a faintly pathetic thing to say (I know my audience; I said it mainly to make her laugh). And of course it was, but it was also wrongheaded in another manner. Watching Emma Rice’s Twelfth Night, it is clear that the dominant ethos behind it is one of genuine kindness or, to take the title of the season at its word, love. Despite the much discussed use of *yawn* amplified sound and electric lighting, it would take a cynic with a heart of granite to read this as a ‘fuck you’ to anyone, including Rice’s detractors.
Like many conflicts – especially work-based ones, which in a way is what the Globe AD dispute is – the real actions that have sparked so much fury now seem almost the antithesis of antagonistic. This is a play that is more interested in reaching out to new audiences, particularly young ones, than it is with boundary-pushing artistic expression. As such, it will likely be a god-send to many beleaguered teachers and school groups. That, and theatregoers mainly interested in finding fun things to do with friends, for example tourists. In this respect, Rice’s work panders directly to two large sectors of the Globe audience. In doing so, it recognises that the Globe is, for many, as much an educational and cultural resource as it is an artistic one, and one underwritten by idea that Shakespeare’s hallowed position in British culture is justified, and should be kept relevant to as many people as possible. Every last bit of this production is saturated with a desire to share, to bring together and – according to the name of the ship – a belief in ‘unity’.
But also – before I sound too much like an earnest prick – it’s just really good fun. As Bridget Minamore pointed out in her review of Joe Wright’s Life of Galileo, fun can be hard to come by in theatre. Sneer at West End musicals if you will, but leaving the stalls still singing and dancing along is up there with the best of feelings. It’s seems like a cop-out to say it’s ‘quite Kneehigh’, but it is ‘quite Kneehigh’ so make of that what you will. Because that comparison works on more levels than just the aesthetic. Like the best of Kneehigh – the gorgeous Tristan and Yseult; the wistful Flying Lovers of Vitebsk – Rice’s Twelfth Night succeeds most in its sadder moments.
Katy Owen plays Malvolio as a cross between the most fascistic member of a rural council and a peevish PE teacher captivated with blowing their own whistle. Yet after the grey tweed has been discarded for custard-coloured golfing socks and a stripy pull-over, Malvolio’s treatment by others is depicted as horribly callous. This message is communicated stronger than in the National Theatre’s recent version starring Tamsin Grieg, mainly because Annette McLaughin as Olivia is far more impassioned in her declarations of cruelty than Phoebe Fox was. There’s also something curiously loveable about Owen’s Malvolio, even when she’s rubbing a domineering hand across the antagonised face of Maria (Carly Bawden).
In common with the NT’s flamboyant fold-out production, though, much of the joy is found in the set design and costume. Malcolm Ripeth’s seasick spearmint lighting works best after the interval when the natural light flooding the wooden ‘o’ has lessened. The huge moon of Lez Brotherston’s set design becomes absinthe green as the household parties beneath it, but its constant presence lends this same suggestion of after-dark partying to the whole show, nodding nicely to original idea of Twelfth Night as a time for revelry.
Twelfth Night‘s aesthetic plays with gender fluidity, too. Viola (Anita-Joy Uwajeh) uses the same ship-shape costume as her lost brother Sebastian (John Pfumojena) as a disguise, whilst Le Gateau Chocolat as Feste is both immaculately made up in gold sequins and peacock-blue eyeshadow, and deliberately undone – a monumental wig is worn and removed within view of the audience. The cleverest comment, however, comes in the form of folded tartan. The kilt is one of the most brilliant of garments because it has long demonstrated that what we consider ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine’ is entirely subjective. A boy in a skirt? Or a man in a kilt? In one context it’s effeminate and transgressive, in the other the epitome of manliness. But all it is, really, is a piece of cloth fastened around the body in the most straightforward manner. As Will Tosh’s article in the programme reiterates, the idea of using clothes as part of ‘performing gender’ is nothing new.
On which note, I should acknowledge that I often get quite snippy about reviews quoting from the programme notes. Since I’ve done it once though, I’ll now do it again. Rice’s introductory notes to the Summer of Love season are remarkable, not just in terms of violating what is expecting in that type of publication, but in terms of resisting what we’re meant to communicate in general, particularly when occupying positions of authority. I can’t think of many other people so willing in public to make reference their deepest losses – as Rice does in the Twelfth Night programme – or their greatest loves. We are encouraged instead to be coldly corporate to be taken seriously, to understand the world as one ‘fuck you’ after another. What a horrible price we pay for that.
Emma Rice writes:
“Men and Women are capable of all things. We are capable of greatness and cowardice, or poetry and banality. We can feel deep hatred but we can also move mountains with compassion, empathy and strength. We can bear a grudge but we can also provoke change. Love is at the centre of our human experience. It provides us with the best of times and the worst of times and reminds us that we are alive, connected and part of something greater than ourselves.”
There’s little else we could do with remembering more.
‘Twelfth Night’ is on at Shakespeare’s Globe until August 5th. Book tickets here.