It’s hard to know what to make of Custom/Practice’s production of Twelfth Night, and it hinges largely on whether the teenagers in the room are the intended audience or if that’s an accident. The night before we saw it, there were 66 11-year-olds in the audience, too, so are we to judge this as a “My First Shakespeare” or are we to judge it on its own merits?
Because, as a play, this modern-dress version doesn’t work so well. To be fair, the update is inspired, going beyond the 21st century costumes so that messages are sent via iPhones, Sir Toby Belch parades around in a kangaroo onesie, and Viola-as-Cesario walks from place to place with an iPhone in her ear. The interpretation of the characters (the best description your correspondent can come up with is The Only Way is Illyria) is usually interesting, too, if not the actual portrayals. It’s a very accessible production, which as a goal isn’t a bad one.
But, look, it’s about lords and ladies and Elizabethan farce and arranged weddings and none of this modernises very well on a textual level because it makes no sense. It made no sense at the time. Twelfth Night is one of Shakespeare’s most phoned-in comedies; it’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream for the upper classes with none of that stuff about fairies. That’s what we’re looking at, here. There is, honestly, not all that much to be done about it.
If you were a high-school-aged kid and you were actually the intended audience, this would be a pretty good entry point into the loose Shakespearean “canon”. Not that you wouldn’t be better off watching Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo and Juliet, which remains the last decent modernised Shakespeare play, and not that it doesn’t devolve into pandering nonsense now and then, but still. There’s an energy about the tiny room that’s nevertheless infectious (especially when Sir Belch and his main bro Sir Andrew are on stage, if you can ignore the lazy gay joke…stuff and roll with it). It might be self-indulgent, and it is, a lot, but at least it’s not boring. The teenagers in the audience loved it, and it was basically them and people like us (i.e. critics too old to understand any of this nonsense) in the Lion & Unicorn.
Essentially, our review is this: if you are an English teacher, arrange an evening trip; your students will eat it up, or at least they will be mildly interested in a play that doesn’t naturally interest them because it was written circa 1595. If you don’t have a solid reason to go other than “I like Shakespeare plays”, this is probably not for you.
Actually, you know what, the worst part is that Custom/Practice really go to town in spelling out the puns (of which there are a great many), and part of the joy of watching Shakespeare is feeling smug/superior when you get the puns, damn it.
Twelfth Night is on at Lion & Unicorn Theatre until 23 February.