Twelfth Night has always been one of Shakespeare’s most memorable and fun-filled comedies. The Globe’s most recent production definitely fulfils that legacy, albeit with a much stronger emphasis on the merry side. Critics have slammed and applauded departing Globe artistic director Emma Rice’s version of the play in equal measure: traditionalists deem it controversial and shallow, whilst others call it raucous and hilariously entertaining. Both parties have valid points, but this review agrees primarily with the latter.
In relocating the action from Illyria to 1970s Scotland, Rice marvellously enhances the play’s sense of fun, with disco dancing and glitter galore. Count Orsino is a preening wannabe rockstar, Aguecheek is a camp lisping golfer, and Feste is a booming baritone drag queen, as played by Le Gateau Chocolat. But the highlight of the production comes from Katy Owen’s Malvolio. Skipping about the stage like a highly-strung baby deer, and blowing a referee’s whistle at any sign of misconduct, for the first half of the play Owen’s Malvolio is a hysterically shrill taskmaster with a clipped Welsh accent. For the second half, following Sir Tony, Aguecheek, and Maria’s prank love letter from Olivia, she transforms into a desperate, lustful fawner, strutting around the stage like a peacock, dry-humping pillars, and embracing audience members with joy. Owen steals every scene she is in with her side-splitting exploits, but that’s not to say there weren’t downsides to the character.
Despite a female actor playing the traditionally male role of Malvolio, there is no delving into the gender complications surrounding this, and Owen is simply a woman playing a man. This is disappointing, especially given Twelfth Night’s reputation as a play that pushes the boundaries of gender and relationships. While this still does happen elsewhere, primarily surrounding Viola and her interactions with other characters, an opportunity is missed with Malvolio: such an exploration could have provided the depth and emotion that the rest of the performance was lacking. The regular spates of dancing do also occasionally disrupt the narrative flow, which means that whilst the emphasis on fun is, well, fun, it comes at the cost of a more nuanced portrayal of the play’s key themes.
That said, Rice’s Twelfth Night assuredly meets its brief as a source of entertainment: I’m sure the laughs and feel-good rendition of We Are Family could be heard from the other side of the Thames. And in a world like ours, who could say no to an excuse to laugh?