Sunday 4 November 2018

Twelfth Night at the Young Vic, or, A Problem with Rewriting Shakespeare

Note: This is a review of the matinee performance on Saturday 27th October 2018.

This was my third Shakespeare in almost as many weeks, and the second to attempt a re-conception of the play (this time a version imported from New York City's Public Theater). In this case the action is cut down to 90 minutes, and much of the text is replaced by new songs with music and lyrics by Shaina Taub. This reimagining turns out to have many admirable qualities, which makes the flaws the more frustrating.

This adaptation mercifully keeps the plot intact and supported by a generally strong cast there are certain things directors Kwame Kwei Armah and Oskar Eustis manage better than any Twelfth Night I've seen. In particular, the double characters of Viola and Cesario, and convincingly portraying Cesario as a man. The idea that Viola is imitating her brother is clever, and it surprises me that this route doesn't occur to more directors. Gabriella Brooks is completely convincing in disguise, in a way that few Violas manage. The only snag here is one of those failings to think the whole piece through - the manner in which Viola is briefly portrayed at the very outset doesn't quite marry up with her later representation of herself - we're supposed to think of her as insecure and vulnerable, but that first appearance has a bit too much confidence about it for this to be wholly convincing.

The finest all round performance for me was Melissa Allan's Feste - apart from anything else it's a treat to have a Scot on a London stage who is neither drunk nor shouting. Allan demonstrates that great ability to act through silence on the various occasions when she's watching events - most of all in the central Cesario/Orsino scene - one time in this production when the interpolated song ("Can this be love") really enhances the moment. She also finds the point in some of Feste's most crucial exchanges, which I've seen other interpreters miss - for example "Take away the fool" and "But do you remember, "Madam, why laugh you..""

Also very well done is Gerard Carey's Malvolio. He benefits from the other strongest song (about becoming Count Malvolio) which turns into a full scale tap routine. The reinterpretation develops an idea of him as a repressed bullied child with a mother fixation and his disgrace and suffering hit home. He also has the finest visual gag in the whole production when he appears on a Segway - I'd no idea it was possible to ride one with such pompous aloofness.

There's also strong work from Rupert Young as Orsino - although making the Duke so silly does begin to make the viewer wonder quite what Viola sees in him - and from Natalie Dew as Olivia - even if this version doesn't find quite as much punch in the moment she realises she's married someone else as the recent NT version did.

The Young Vic follows the National's recent Pericles by adding a Community Chorus. Neither have found quite the punch with this approach that the Royal Opera's Dialogues des Carmelites possessed but both brought a great deal of energy and enthusiasm to proceedings, while also in this case delivering Lizzi Gee's choreography impressively. I was less convinced by the decision to include Greek like musical sections so they can tell us the plot - this was, at least to me, perfectly obvious, and these sections unnecessarily slow down the action.

So, why then, given these many strong elements, is this not a more completely satisfying show? The problem I'm afraid lies in the decision to cut large swathes of Shakespeare's text and replace it with Shaina Taub's lyrics. While Taub's music is often an enjoyable pastiche of a variety of genres, the lyrics rarely compare well with Shakespeare. Too often they have a generic quality rather than seeming to belong to, to really illuminate, the specific character delivering them. Taub didn't make me forget the original often enough. It also seemed to me a shame to lose Shakespeare's original songs. I can understand cutting The Rain it Raineth given the show's desire for a thoroughly upbeat ending. The loss of the haunting melancholy of O Mistress Mine is much more serious.

One utterly maddening cut in the spoken dialogue which remains also deserves mention. One of the few scenes to be left fairly intact is that between Orsino and Cesario when the latter gets as close as she can to revealing her passion. It's one of my favourite scenes in Shakespeare, and it is here played beautifully until the very end when, bafflingly, the wonderful line "I am all the daughters of my father's house, and all the brothers too" is cut.

There is also, finally, an issue about speed. It's interesting to note that the Donmar's Measure for Measure which I saw a couple of weeks ago also condensed the play into ninety minutes but without this feeling a problem. Here, relationships develop almost too abruptly at times. There is something of this in the original of course but with a slower pace a director can suggest more on the edges of scenes, opportunities which the rush sometimes misses here.

In the end there's much to enjoy in this production both in the performances and the interpretations. I suspect the less you know the original work the more you'll probably enjoy it. It did move me and make me laugh, but there were too many occasions when I got irritated by the lyrics for it to be a wholly enjoyable afternoon.

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