Two years ago, everyone in the know in New York was raving about this exciting new production at the Public Theatre. It was a fast-paced, rollicking rendition of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, a play we all thought we knew every possible version of yet were seeing in a new light – as a hip musical. (If you use the word hip are you automatically not hip?) I was sorry to have missed that original run, but luckily the production has come to London’s Young Vic to stir things up. With original director Kwame Kwei Armah on board alongside the Public’s Oskar Eustis, this version of Twelfth Night is a short and sweet modern musical with rocking original songs by Shaina Taub. Although the overeager chopping actually cut too much of the story, the overall concept successfully makes a familiar play feel new again.
The Duke (Rupert Young) and Viola/Cesario (Gabrielle Brooks) have some of the most compelling, watchable scenes, but too much of the buildup of their story has been cut. She starts working for the Duke and like immediately falls in love with him? Sure he’s handsome but it’s hard to buy without proper time devoted to their story. Don’t get me wrong, I LOVES me a 90-minute show, but for such a classic like Twelfth Night – and for such an intriguing, provocative take on it – it deserves more time. Because, while more time and scenes would help the story that’s there, the scenes that are there are pretty strong. All of our leads find really hilarious comic moments in the seemingly nothingest of moments, elevating the production with every little laugh. Brooks has a voice, and even though her final scenes seemed all the same level of smiling-so-I’m-happy acting, it was nice to have a leading lady who could really sing. Natalie Dew (from the ‘Bend it Like Beckham’ musical, poor girl) has the impossible task of following the last Olivia I saw – Mark Rylance, who won another Tony for his work as the much-sought after lady of Ilyria. He really found humor in the dullest bits of the script (“What is your parentage?! Ugh!” was reason enough for him to win). While this Olivia wasn’t quite a laugh-riot, she did a very nice job.
Surprisingly, I thought one of the most riveting performances was that of Feste, the fool, who kind of acts as a narrator in this production. Surprising, because I never thought much of Feste before. But here the character is kind of the string holding the show together, and so interesting that I want to reread the play and see what I was missing. As played by Melissa Allan, Feste is a recognizable girl from the East London club scene (I would know), with leather pants and a cut-out top, down on her luck and keeping an observant eye on the fortunes of those around her. And fork me, Allan can SANG. Not just sing, but SANG. It helps that she gets the best song of the production – “Is This Not Love”, a song I can’t wait to download and play all the time and sing in the shower until my neighbors call the cops and I can be like “joke’s on you I’m not breaking any laws!”
We get a shitload of time devoted to Malvolio (Gerard Carey), Olivia’s steward. Even though Carey gives a fantastic performance and his were the comic best moments (how he made an entire audience cry laughing just by turning around on a segway is a feat), the unmatched attention made him seem like the lead character, and, as a result, didn’t allow for enough heft to be given to Orsino and Viola/Cesario’s relationship. Also, this brought too much attention to the worst part about Twelfth Night – the Malvolio/Toby Belch/Maria subplot. In this supposedly ‘comic’ subplot, Sir Toby Belch and Maria (the uncle and maidservant of Olivia, respectively) trick Malvolio into believing that Olivia is in love with him, by having Maria write a fake letter in Olivia’s handwriting. The letter contains declarations of love for a certain man that is undeniably Malvolio, as well as the notorious request for him to dress in ‘yellow stockings cross-gartered’ so he looks silly. And, as punishment, Toby and Maria…get married. I mean. It’s THE WORST. They deserve to DIE. Probably my most hated Shakespeare story. Sure, Malvolio is kind of a prick but he’s nothing compared to these two absolute wankers who take someone’s sanity and use it as a plaything. In this rendition, sadly, full weight is given to this subplot, so it takes over. And, sadder, they don’t do anything to fix how horrible it is. In fact, it’s clearer that Malvolio loses his mind and is taken away to an asylum! I want the version of Twelfth Night that sees Toby and Maria punished and banished from Ilyria, for a start. And while Carey’s “Count Malvolio” is a superb number (a perfect musical comedy song, too; Taub knows what she is doing for the genre), it doesn’t need two reprises.
It’s a little odd that the story is put in a modern setting – Ilyria is a regular, diverse city – yet has a duke and counts and countesses. As such, the modern setting and clothes and language feel a little off. Either a full commitment to modernity (i.e. getting rid of the nobility and having them be different kinds of upper class) or a fully realized traditional production just with modern music would have been more overall convincing.
As for the real boy twin, Sebastian (Jyuddah Jaymes), he is saved by a sea captain named Antonio (Jonathan Livingstone), who here looks like straight outta wartime. Antonio saves and helps Sebastian get back on his feet because of his ‘affection’ for him, which is never really explained. Here, Antonio gets to profess his feelings for Sebastian through song, and it works to make it clear that Antonio is in love with Sebastian, but the brevity of every section of the story means that it kind of comes out of nowhere, and it doesn’t go anywhere. And we don’t get a satisfying reunion of the two friends after all the twin-caused confusion in the final act. I would like to see a version where Antonio gets the boy. I already said something about Olivia and Viola being lovers, didn’t I? I guess I want someone to change the ending and do a full-on LGBTQ version.
But that’s besides the point! As is, the fact that I wish this was a full two-act work speaks volumes for how much fun I had. It’s not perfect, and I do (obviously) have a lot of criticisms, but mostly I had a forking blast. It may be a lightweight version, and only 90 minutes, but each minute was full of new life given to this old play. The talented cast and this vibrant, often electrifying production is not to be missed. And some of the music is magnificent. I can’t wait to see what Taub does next.
Twelfth Night is at the Young Vic until November 17.
If you can’t get to London to see it, you can download the album (vocals by Shaina Taub) here and apparently it’s a ‘name your own price’ jawn! Amazing! Off to listen to “Is This Not Love” a million times. Oh and “If You Were My Beloved”!!