You will get into the party spirit as soon as you step into the Young Vic Theatre and see the brightly coloured streets of Illyria. A professional cast of eleven are supplemented by a talented and lively community chorus who join in the musical numbers, adding to the general atmosphere of the place. This is where young Viola finds herself washed up on shore the day the coffin of Olivia’s brother is taken away in a (white) van for his final journey.
The bare bones of the Shakespeare original survives in this adaptation, conceived by Kwame Kwei-Armah (who also co-directs with Oskar Eustis) and Shaina Taub (who wrote the music and lyrics for the big numbers). Some of the original verse survives in musical form, notably for Malvolio, while some is modernised into a more contemporary venacular, but without dumbing-down the text. There’s also good use of props including the van, crash barriers, window shades and confetti showers.
Viola (Gabrielle Brooks, who is excellent in her borrowed clothes and spectacles as the confused Cesario, displaying assumed masculinity as well as a growing feminine maturity) seeks employment with the Duke Orsino (Rupert Young), who conveniently lives next to a pub called ‘The Duke of Illyria’. He is enamoured of the frosty Olivia (Natalie Dew, who exudes a frustrated sexiness), who lives in mourning with her maid Maria (Gbemisola Ikumelo). Maria in turn lusts after the bawdy and boozy Sir Toby Belch (a menacing Martyn Ellis), uncle to Olivia; Olivia falls for the young ‘Cesario’; and Olivia’s hand is also sought by Welsh sot Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Silas Wyatt-Barke).
As if all the confusion is not bad enough, Viola has a brother who unbeknownsed to her, did not drown on their fated voyage. This Sebastian (Jyuddah Jaymes) was rescued by fugitive from justice Antonio (Jonathan Livingstone), who has an infatuation for his young friend. If you can believe that a boy and girl born as twins can be identical, you can see the mischief this play will bring, but the adaptation also plays with gender identity in musical numbers about ‘disguise being the devil’, about ‘what kind of man are you’, and in Feste’s lament while Orsino and ‘Cesario’ struggle with their feelings for each other, ‘is this not love>?’ – Melissa Allan, incidentally, makes a memorable Feste and adds to the gender-reversal in view.
Finally, Olivia’s steward Malvolio (Gerard Carey) has inflated delusions of grandeur, and he also gets a big top hat dance number, and the chance to look truly ridiculous in hideous yellow lycra. His vanity and assumption that his is an undeniable attraction to his mistress makes for the high points of the play, although his final exit is somewhat dampened by an almost genuine ‘I hope you will all be very happy’. Still, to see the character on a Segway, doing a big production number about ‘greatness’, and providing a truly farcical take on the letter scene which becomes almost piteous by the exchange about a light with Feste, is worth the admission price alone.
All is well by the end of proceedings in the town of Illyria, with three married couples, two sisters, reunited twins, and a lively closing number. ‘The word on the street’ is that this musical reboot of the Bard is quite a success.
Twelfth Night runs at the Young Vic until the 17th November 2018. Buy your tickets here.
You can listen to the cast recording of the production which ran in New York in 2016 here.