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Twelfth Night (Young Vic)

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.

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View from audience. Photo by Louise Penn.

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.

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Viola, Orsino and Feste. Photo by Johan Persson.

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.

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Malvolio. Photo by Johan Persson.

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.

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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.


Wings (Young Vic)

Juliet Stevenson plays Emily Stilson, a former wing-walker who has had a stroke and is trapped in a mind which stops her making associations and causes her to speak a babble which makes perfect sense to her but not anyone else around her.

Over a two-year period, this 80 minute play follows Mrs Stilson (we never see her husband, but see her son, briefly) as she starts to make more sense and to make more than transient contact with the world around her.

One moving platform, some see-through curtains, a minimal use of projections, and stellar light work which projects Stevenson’s shadow as she flies, means that the one flashy conceit – our wing-walker spends the vast majority of the play airbourne in a harness doing a staggering range of acrobatic moves that must be as tiring as remembering the complex script – the play has to offer takes most of the attention.

An uplifting play of hope, memory, and language, this is its first revival in the UK for thirty years.  It is a moving and clever play which may not be everyone’s idea of a fun night out, but which I recommend you make time to see.  


The Trial (Young Vic)

I am familiar with Kafka’s novel about the mysterious Josef K and his unexplained arrest, with a claustrophobic series of locations and larger than life characters populating this piece of absurdist fiction.  Theatrical adaptations have been problematic, notably the production by Steven Berkoff back in the 1970s (which did get a sense of both the absurd and the ever diminishing sets).

Fast-forward to 2015 and this new adaptation by Nick Gill, directed by Richard Jones, and I really don’t know what to make of it.  Once you are admitted into the Young Vic’s auditorium, as an audience member you sit in the reconfigured stalls in a jury bench setting on either side of the stage, which is initially presented as a large red box with a keyhole in the top, lifting once the show starts to display a travelator on which cast members walk, kneel, thrash around, etc.

Locations do not feel small or cramped in any way, and are restricted to K’s flat (and his neighbour Rosa’s), K’s place of work at the bank, lawyer Miss Grace’s house, and various areas of the court.  There are doubling up on characters (with Kate O’Flynn convincing across six roles), but really the stand-out performance is that of Rory Kinnear as Josef K who must be absolutely exhausted by a two-hour piece where he is never off-stage and has to work both physically and mentally hard throughout, due to Gill’s decision to put K’s interior monologues in a weird broken Pigdin kind of English, largely fixated on matters of sexual problems and (false?) memories from the past.

This aside, and some good supporting performances (Sian Thomas as Mrs Grace/Doctor, Richard Cant as Male Guard/Assistant/Tudor), I wasn’t sold on the changes that had been made to the original text – why change the portrait painter to a disco dancing tattooist?  That set, too, although intriguing at the start, wasn’t fully utilised, although having a moving walkway helping characters along (and holding them back) is fun.


Happy Days (Young Vic)

Samuel Beckett’s play is often said to contain one of the greatest roles for an actress in Winnie, who delivers practically a monologue while buried up to her waist in Act 1 and to her neck in Act 2.   Indeed, the role has sometimes been described as the actress’s King Lear.  And so we have a new production at the Young Vic, directed by Natalie Abrahami.

Winnie on this occasion is Juliet Stevenson, who has always been one of my favourite screen actresses but until today I had not had the pleasure to see her on stage other than one of the multiple readers in the Sylvia Plath’s Ariel reading at the Royal Festival Hall last year.  She gives the eternally optimistic Winnie a heart and soul and makes her as funny as she is eventually heartbreaking, especially in her constant chatter and bawdy interactions with her husband Willie (rarely seen, and rarely audible – and we hardly ever see his face, just the back of his head – but nevertheless well played by David Beames who gives this thankless part life).

‘Happy Days’ can be read in many ways.  Why Winnie has found herself buried in the earth (in this production, rocks and grit, rather than the usual sand) is never disclosed, although she does remember a time when she had the use of her legs.  The time and place is unclear, and we do not know why Willie lives in his cave and why, as he appears to be able-bodied, he doesn’t leave or help free his wife from her predicament.  Is the play a meditation on the uselessness of life, about the breakdown of companionate marriage, or simply a post-Apocalyptic fable?

Winnie chatters on about the minutiae of life as she searches through her bag for small items which bring her pleasure or small nuggets of memory (a brush, a comb, toothbrush and toothpaste, lipstick, glasses,  tonic, a music box, a gun).   Her life is regimented by a harsh bell which rings for waking and sleeping, although the light (daylight or sunlight, one presumes, but here a harsh artificial light, in keeping with Beckett’s original stage directions for everything to be as unrealistic as possible) is constant.

Stevenson makes this woman almost beautiful, although it is unclear how she is sustained without food or drink, and how she retains her energy.  Her one piece of protection, her parasol, burns up in act 1.  In the second half she looks haggard and pale and her chatter becomes more desperate and her refrain about everything being ‘wonderful’ sounds more and more hollow.  When Willie finally appears (in the stage text he is ‘dressed to kill’) in top hat and tails, crawling across the rocks, we don’t know whether he is heading for his wife or for the gun which will bring release to both of them.  It’s enough that he is on the move and within her sight again, and as she sings lines, brokenly, from ‘The Merry Widow’, this play of contradictions comes to a close.

‘Happy Days’ has sometimes been performed with regional accents or a bit of humour even in the second act, but here, Stevenson’s genteel lady in the printed dress puts across the desperation of her situation in a way which makes the play much more disturbing than, for example, the version which was filmed for the ‘Beckett on Film’ project.   It may be something about the harsh sound of the bell (which doesn’t allow Winnie to close her eyes at all in act 2), or the wild eyes of the woman in pain, unable to move her head, or the weird empty silence as she cries out for her husband, or the disturbing story of the mouse and the doll, but this version of the play really packs a punch.


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