Theatre Review: Twelfth Night @ Lion & Unicorn

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.

But.

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.

Tags: , , , , ,

  • Mark

    The fact that you want to feel ‘smug/superior’ when watching means that you’re absolutely the wrong person to appreciate this piece of theatre. I watched this on Tuesday – I hardly go to the theatre and don’t watch Shakespearean plays generally because of the pomposity of the whole thing – with people laughing at jokes I simply don’t understand. The clarity of this particular production, however, surpassed anything I had seen before. I have also not had so much fun in the theatre and I’ve recommended this show to all my friends.

    I find your review really shortsighted, confusing and badly written. You make a point about how to modernise a play about lords and ladies makes no sense – but then say it made no sense at the time either. Talk about a redundant paragraph.
    You also say ‘It might be self-indulgent , and it is, alot…’ Terrible writing and also completely wrong. This was the least pretentious, accessible production of Shakespeare I have seen. And it’s also ironic that whilst you call the production self-indulgent and then finish by saying that part of your own enjoyment of Shakespeare is being part of a special group of people who understand the humour when others don’t. Pot – kettle.

    Maybe your desire to ‘feel smug/superior’ means it prevents you from conceding that you’re unable to sit and enjoy a piece of theatre that everyone else is enjoying (cf every other review). Surely that is the point of theatre – to bring people together in a shared experience rather than being exclusive to people who enjoy looking down on those people who ‘don’t get it’. Cultural experiences are dead if this something you strive for. Maybe you should open your mind, ‘damn it’.