Twelfth Night Review – Shakespeare for the Love Island Generation’

Harry Hatwell is impressed by the mirror of contemporary reality in an ambitious adaptation at the Keble O'Reilly

While sceptical at first, I did grow to see the creative flair behind Alice Taylor’s production of Twelfth Night, in which the action catapulted from the Shakespearean age straight into the modern world of the selfie and ‘Will Grigg’s On Fire’ (which, to my disbelief, was chanted to open the second act) .

Twelfth Night offered an immersive experience, with flashing club lights and nightclub-style stamps instead of tickets. Mere gimmicks? I don’t think so. There was something highly professional about this production of one of Shakespeare’s greatest comedies, particularly with its focus on the role of social media and the power of this new form of communication to abuse and manipulate. I may have been reading too much into it, but by the time the cast were giving their bows I definitely felt the need to reflect on the dangers of modern life, provoked by the action on stage and its mirroring of reality.

As an ensemble piece, this production definitely delivered. Outstanding performances were given by Tom Fisher (as the very dark Duke Orsino), Esme Saunders (Olivia), and Joseph Shailer (Antonio). The tale of twins separated by a shipwreck and reunited through subterfuge and intrigue, a nightclub is probably not the most obvious choice of setting for a production of Twelfth Night. However, Isabel Galwey and Niamh Calway’s design proved the doubters wrong. It was a triumph.

Saunders pranced around the traverse stage as a glamour model-style Olivia, with an entourage of supporters with flashing smartphones and the requisite sportswear and personal assistant-cum-personal trainer (Malvolio, played by Robin Ferguson) to make it big in reality television. Shrieking and screaming after Malvolio’s big reveal – a picture of him in a compromising position on his smartphone – and rather creepy advances, Saunders is exquisite as the twenty-first century’s greatest invention, the style-devoid style icon. She is the ultimate petulant child.

Inevitably, much attention was drawn to Malvolio’s torture-like treatment which was made even more gratuitously depraved and violent than in other productions I have seen. In the end, after all the blood-letting and attacks, I certainly felt a great deal of sympathy for Ferguson’s character, even as he pledged revenge and staggered away from his captors. Ferguson should be applauded for his ability to make the audience feel queasy at his utter creepiness and lechery, whilst also sorrow at his ultimate demise.

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Taylor definitely succeeded in toeing the delicate line between bloody, horror-film style terror and comedy (Twelfth Night’s default) with this production. I was taken aback by how morbid Twelfth Night can become, particularly with the McMafia-style Duke Orsino surrounded by his evil enforcers.

As with all modernised productions, I expected a gay love story to emerge. I was not disappointed, well, not completely. Antonio and Sebastian (Tom Mackie) appeared to have their own romantic affair going on behind the wider plot of the latter being lost as sea far from his estranged sister. Stealing a kiss on the balcony before Antonio was brutally attacked by Orsino’s henchman did add some raunchiness to the evening, but an explicitly happy ending for the pair would not have been too much to ask for.

The Post-Truth Theatre Company certainly delivered on its remit with this production of Twelfth Night, showing us the excess of young alcoholics (the laddish and likeable Christopher Page and Staś Butler as Toby and Andrew respectively), the dangers of social media, and unwanted sexual advances. Arguably, the beauty of the Shakespearean cannon is its ability to speak to us using the language of 500 years ago but in terms we understand, in settings we can relate to, and with layers of meaning that peel open only for us to peek in. Taylor’s production recognises all that, and more.

Twelfth Night runs at the Keble O’Reilly until Saturday, 20th January.