Shakespeare is often bawdy and funny. Ovo Theatre Company’s Twelfth night, directed by Adam Nichols, is the funniest and bawdiest Shakespeare I have seen.
Written as something of a farce and with plenty of music and comedy, the play lends itself to over-the-top reimagining and OVO have grabbed this opportunity with both hands. This is song and dance Shakespeare in which both the cast and the audience have a ball.
Faithful to the text but taking some liberties with the gender of the characters, the action takes place not on the island of Illyria as in the original, but on a cruise liner of the same name in the 1920s. This is a more modern and familiar setting for the hedonism and drunken revelry that run through a play first performed in 1601.
The director and cast wring every last comic drop from the bard’s words and throw in some contemporary touches for good measure. Carefully choreographed slapstick comedy is allied to some distinctly unshakespearean music – notably Madonna, Britney Spears, Radiohead, Wham and a brief but hilarious reference to Celine Dion’s Titanic tune. Often given a jazz treatment to suit the times, these songs are completely at home in the midst of such well orchestrated mayhem. And true to Shakespeare’s original intent, the music sharpens the drama and illuminates the characters and their various plights. Happily there is some real singing talent on show – Hannah Francis-Baker’s Feste is always in fine voice, but is not the only one.
All the performances are good, but some comic performances deserve particular mention. Anna Franklin’s Lady Toby Belch is a gloriously abandoned drunk. James Douglas’s Sir Andrew Aguecheek is a tweedy but nimble buffoon sounding alarmingly like Prince Charles. Emma Watson’s Olivia is a predatory, lustful reflection of the excesses of of the “roaring twenties”. And Faith Turner as gender-swapped Malvolia turns in a wonderfully tragicomic portrayal of one of Shakespeare’s better known characters.
While enormously funny, this production also touches on the more serious issues of gender identity and sexuality. There are some poignant moments – tears amongst the laughter. This might be Shakespeare reimagined, but it is true to the spirit of the original in all the most important ways.
I left feeling that this production deserves a much bigger stage and a much longer run. Catch it while you can.
Twelfth Night plays at the Rose Playhouse, 56 Park Street, SE1 9AR until 5 May. For further information go to roseplayhouse.org.uk Tickets £17.50 or £15.00 concessions
For further information about OVO Theatre click here