Theatre review: The Globe’s Twelfth Night on DVD

Twelfth Night

The Globe Theatre, 2017
Written by William Shakespeare

Director: Emma Rice
Cast: Marc Antolin, Carly Bawden, Nandi Bhebhe, Tony Jayawardena, Joshua Lacey, Pieter Lawman, Le Gateau Chocolat, Annette McLaughlin, Kandaka Moore, Katy Owen, John Pfumojena, Theo St. Claire, Anita-joy UwajehOpus Arte DVD

How much of the original text do you need to keep to in a production for it to be authentically Shakespeare? I don’t think you can put a percentage on it since cuts are common and even the authorship of the plays is questioned, some of them recognised as having been written in collaboration with other playwrights. There’s no doubt however that during her brief and curtailed residence as artistic director of the Globe, Emma Rice tested the limits of what theatre-goers could comfortably accept as an authentic Shakespeare experience. Understandably I don’t think many liked the idea of the director not only deciding what percentage of Shakespeare’s text to retain, but were horrified at the idea of a modern collaborator rewriting parts of Shakespeare’s texts with, in the case of Twelfth Night, additional material by Nile Rodgers, Bernard Edwards and Gloria Gaynor.

Again the issue appears to be one of appropriateness. While it might be acceptable to go and see Kiss Me Kate at a West End theatre and not bat an eyelid, you wouldn’t expect to see Cole Porter’s musical put on at the Globe as The Taming of the Shrew. Making extensive cuts, updating the language, using theatrical lighting and perhaps an over-indulging in camp seemed to upset many critics and indeed proved to be a little annoying in A Midsummer Night’s Dream even if there was little doubt that the spirit or heart of the play remained intact. As another fun entertainment Twelfth Night is also surely amenable to a similar sense of light-hearted playfulness: it’s not Lear or Hamlet by any means. Emma Rice however seems to take this as licence to play with the percentages even further, to the extent of turning Twelfth Night into a musical, with theatrical lighting, extensive cuts and updated language. And disco.

It takes a good 10 minutes into Rice’s Globe production of Twelfth Night before we get anything close to recognisably Shakespearean, since in this production we’re on the party cruise ship the SS Unity and everyone is singing and dancing, led by bearded baritone drag queen Le Gateau Chocolat in a gold glitter dress as Feste, singing Sister Sledge’s ‘We Are Family‘. Shakespeare’s text tentatively makes its way in after the ship goes down, which is theatrically staged with Sebastian whisked away on a row boat that floats its way through the Globe’s groundlings, but the musical accompaniment and breakouts of singing continues throughout Viola’s arrival on Illyria – here a Scottish island – her service to Count Orsino and introduction to Countess Olivia. “If music be the food of love, play on” indeed.

By the time we get to Lord Toby Belch and Sir Andrew Aguecheek and their carrying-on Rice is on firmer ground and there’s the beginnings of hope that this won’t be a complete shipwreck. It’s not just that these characters are timelessly amusing, but it’s evident that Rice engages well with the comic spirit of Shakespeare in them without having to resort to pratfalls (though we get those later, and why not?). It’s all in the delivery of Shakespeare’s hilarious text and situations. But it’s not just the comedy, and the real key to where Rice succeeds here is in the casting and directing of the cast. To put it plainly, they give life to the text, they put character and spirit behind them, alert to the possibilities, charm and poetry of the verse that has the potential to deliver dividends on stage. It’s not just the farce of Maria, Belch, Aguecheek and Malvolio but the gender confusion romances of Viola, Olivia, Orsino and Sebastian.

It’s hard to upstage Malvolio in this play though and Katy Owen brings a unique turn to it here playing the steward in a stuffy Welsh schoolmaster-ish way, who gets surprisingly agile and energetic later, but if you can get everyone playing up to the same level as Malvolio, and not just individually but as an ensemble, then you can mess around with the text and the theatrics all you like (within reason) and still deliver a wholly entertaining Twelfth Night. Annette McLaughlin, for example stands out as the bridge between the richness of the drama, feeding the romantic declarations of Olivia but also the comic situations of Malvolio and the Countess’s household, accepting the outrageous fortunes of fate and chance that the drama plays on.

As for whether Emma Rice’s theatrical touch is appropriate or not for the Globe, well clearly not everyone saw it that way but Rice recognises that it’s not just the text, the direction and the performances that are important but that the audience need to be taken into consideration and brought along with whatever novelty is proposed, and the audience presence and participation is one of the essential elements of the Globe Theatre. The audience should feed into the drama and performance and come out of the performance feeling as invigorated as if they were also up there on the stage. That’s a unique property of this theatre and Rice recognises that and takes advantage of it.

Consequently however, the musical song and dance numbers probably come across as much more invigorating and fun in the theatre than on the screen. While the temptation is there in the inherent musicality of Shakespeare’s verse in practice it doesn’t always scan as well when sung, but there is much to compensate in the terrifically entertaining performances here and the theatrical possibilities that Shakespeare provides for Twelfth Night. I suspect that there’s an attempt to update the gender fluid qualities of the play but it’s probably a god thing that other than a drag queen Feste and a female playing Malvolio, the traditional gender switching and confusion isn’t made an “issue” in this production.

Released on Region-free DVD by Opus Arte, the production looks mostly fine even with the NTSC lower resolution (for worldwide compatibility). The theatre lights clash with the remaining daylight in the earlier scenes and some camera angles struggle to balance the exposure levels in the open air Globe are consequently a little glaring but for the most part the image looks reasonably good. The soundtrack is only a Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo option and there’s not always detail and resonance in the mix of voices and musical backing, but that’s perhaps acceptable in a live performance and it’s generally clear enough. English subtitles are provided if necessary, but best avoided if you have a horror for the liberties taken with the text. Other than a Cast Gallery, the only other extras are in the form of essays in the booklet, Will Tosh looking at questions of gender as understood in Shakespeare’s time, Farah Karim-Cooper on how we regard the cruelty of the “most notoriously abused” Malvolio.


Updated: Mar 10, 2020

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Theatre review: The Globe’s Twelfth Night on DVD | The Digital Fix