Review: Twelfth Night, Shakespeare’s Globe

Emma Rice’s “Summer of Love” at Shakespeare’s Globe proves to be her farewell season as Artistic Director. And what a farewell her Twelfth Night has turned out to be. Rice invites you all aboard the SS Unity for a dose of glitter, glam rock and drag queens, a bash before the crash on the island of Illyria.

And what a crash it is. The already topsy-turvy world of the bard’s creation is subverted even further by Rice’s commitment to its themes of gender blurring and sexual fluidity. This preoccupation is epitomised by Le Gateau Chocolat’s portrayal of Feste, who oversees proceedings robed in a shimmering gold ball gown. Katy Owen’s Malvolio also perpetrates the transgression of traditional gender boundaries, yet Rice’s purpose in this is unclear, merely presenting a female playing a male role opposed to changing the gender identity of the character in the play (however, regarding the recent uproar about Tamsin Greig playing Malvolio at the National Theatre, it would seem the theatre world has not come so far as to not consider this revolutionary). Nevertheless, Owen’s performance steals the show. Her straight laced, prim and proper, Scottish butler is fully embodied with intricate physical mannerisms and is also the source of much of the humour, enhanced by her later descent into the madness of love.

The Duke Orsino delivers Shakespeare’s lines through song, as if performing a saucy power rock ballad, undressing the audience with his eyes and handing one lucky spectator a rose. The fact that his musical delivery utilises the original text is refreshing, as at times, Shakespeare’s presence is lost amidst Rice’s stubborn quest for re-imagination, primarily through the inclusion of music from her childhood, much of which is played by the live band on the stage balcony. The soundtrack ranges from disco to Scottish folk, salsa, tango and punk to 70s prog rock, all of which have been blended by Ian Ross to create a new microcosmic world that defies categorisation. Whilst this eclectic smorgasbord of influences is the foundation of Rice’s genius – making Shakespeare accessible and relevant to a new generation – the work also at times appears more like a free-for-all in a “directorial sweetie shop”, opposed to reflecting Rice’s thought through, academic qualifications that she describes in the programme.

No one can deny it’s a visual spectacle, and I defy anyone to leave Twelfth Night without a smile on their face. It teeters close to being an Eton Mess of unrelated inspirations, yet this also appears to be its charm. Either way, it is a fitting finale to Emma Rice’s short but sweet premiership, showcasing her directorial quirks that we all know and love.

Twelfth Night is running at Shakespeare’s Globe until August 5.

Photo: Hugo Glendinning