Review - Twelfth Night is 'a terrific start to a new chapter' at the Young Vic
Emma Rice staged Twelfth Night as her exit production from the main stage of Shakespeare's Globe last year after an all-too-brief tenure as its artistic director, and now Kwame Kwei-Armah chooses the play, too, to make his debut as artistic director at the Young Vic. Though their productions couldn't be more different, they both take their cue from Orsino's opening line: "If music be the food of love, play on," turning what follows into Twelfth Night - the Musical.
But Kwei-Armah, who conceived this version with Shaina Taub, goes even further: it ditches much of Shakespeare, too, retaining its plot but shredding its running time to just a swift 90 minutes. The result is equal parts street party and musical, generously laced with full-full-blown production numbers (with music and lyrics by Taub and choreography by Lizzi Gee).
Co-directing with Oskar Eustis (who runs the Public Theatre in New York, where this production first originated as part of its Public Works programme in 2016 and then again as part of this year's summer season in the open air Delacorte Theatre in Central Park), but newly designed here by British designer Robert Jones, Kwei-Armah stages an exuberant, colourful spectacle that announces that things will be very different in SE1 from now on.
Or rather, perhaps, maybe that should be W11: it feels like we're in a street somewhere around Notting Hill as multi-coloured doors of a West London tenement recede into the distance on the heavily potholed street that runs through the middle of it. Overhead bunting flies the flags of the nations of the world.
And of course, a fully diverse cast is employed here, mixing races but not, as Rice did, genders. Among the warm-hearted actors, there's hilarious work from Martin Ellis as Sir Toby Belch, Silas Wyatt-Barke as Sir Andrew Aguecheek, and Gbemisola Ikumelo as Maria, all conspiring against Gerard Carey's pompous Malvolio, and a sweetly-earnest romantic sincerity from Rupert Young as Orsino, Natalia Dew as Olivia and Gabrielle Brooks as Viola. There's also the addition of a community chorus of some 30 performers drawn from the local area. In a programme note, Kwei-Armah and the theatre's executive director Despina Tsatsas applaud them: “they are not trained actors; they are our wonderful neighbours and friends performing alongside a sensational cast of consummate professional actors and musicians. We think that's pretty special."
They're right: it's great to put the community that has always been at the centre of the Young Vic's ethos as a theatre at the centre of its stage.
But the production also marks a continuation of the Young Vic's global reach, continuing a partnership with the Public Theater that also saw it earlier this year host the London transfer of Fun Home from there. (The Public may nowadays have the most prolific footprint of any New York theatre in bringing its shows to London: as well as Hamilton now at the Victoria Palace, the Donmar Warehouse is soon to stage the UK premiere of Sweat that was first seen there).
The show is a lot of fun, and a terrific start of a new chapter for the Young Vic.
Photo credit Johan Persson