Perhaps the bard’s most gender-bending work – and the one with the most openly homoerotic relationship in all of his canon – Twelfth Night is a classic Shakespearean comedy, packed full of mistaken identities, swapped genders and misplaced affections. In this bold new interpretation from director Wils Wilson, those aspects are amped up to the hedonistic heights of the swinging 60s, carrying with them a strong nod towards the socially relevant issue of LGBT inclusivity.
In the source material, twin brother and sister Viola (played here by Jade Ogugua) and Sebastian (Joanne Thomson) become separated at sea, only for the former to impersonate a male gentleman when she arrives at the court of the Duke of Orsino (Colette Dalal Tchantcho). Before long, Viola finds herself inside the knottiest of love triangles alongside the Duke and his intended Olivia (Lisa Dwyer Hogg), while in the background, an underling gets ideas above his station and other underlings delight in knocking him back down into the dirt. An even more buried subplot sees Sebastian embark upon a gay relationship with the sea captain (Brian James O’Sullivan) who saved him from shipwreck and certain death, only to discard him when a better offer comes along.
Sound complicated? It is, and matters aren’t made easier by a modern audience wrapping its ears around the antiquated phrasing of Ye Olde English. But not content with that level of confusion, the new production insists on spinning a few more plates of its own by having females play three male roles – and by casting a tall, dark-skinned, afro-touting, English-accented female as the identical twin sister of a short, pale, blonde and Scottish female… who is playing a male. That should just about do it for the confusion quota.
The whole thing is prefaced by an introductory scene in which a group of party-loving hippies in a 60s squat decide to amuse themselves by playing dress-up and acting out the play in its entirety – hence the indiscriminate nature of the casting. While that might work as an excuse to inject a hefty dollop of contemporary style into the score and costume rack, it does feel a little tacked-on to the rest of the play. Perhaps there are some points to be made about rejecting the traditional roles that society thrusts upon us and embracing equality in all its forms, but the willingness to foreground these issues without fully exploring them does sacrifice some coherence in the play itself.
Having said that, it’s certainly an innovative and enjoyable take on the subject matter. The use of song livens up proceedings, with the ballad and sax solo of Sir Andrew Aguecheek (an increasingly on-point Guy Hughes) a particular highlight. The piece’s other butt-of-all-jokes, Malvolio, is given a zesty lease of life by Christopher Green’s uppity arrogance and Ana Inés Jabares-Pita’s racy costume design. His tormentors Maria (Joanna Holden) and Lady Tobi (Dawn Sievewright) are deliciously debauched in their treatment of him, but perhaps the biggest plaudits go to Dylan Read in his role as the witty fool Feste. It’s to the production’s credit that it doesn’t overlook Malvolio’s humanity in his humiliation, giving the play a level of gravitas that is absent elsewhere in its hefty three-hour runtime.
All in all, Wilson’s Twelfth Night is an ambitious attempt to at once embrace the hedonistic elements of Shakespeare’s comedy in a 60s context and highlight its gender identity subtext in a thoroughly modern one. Its success in doing so will likely come down to individual taste – but any which way you look at it, cross-gartered yellow stockings will never be quite the same again.