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Twelfth Night at The Globe Theatre 2021 | Review

With its climate of chaos and misrule, it’s an apt choice of play for our times. Comedy it may be but, as with much of Shakespeare’s work in this mode, darkness and terror are everywhere. It would be strange if this were not the case here, since 1603, when it was premiered, found London struggling under the tyranny of the plague and losing some 30,000 of its citizens to it in the course of the year.

Twelfth Night, Shakespeare's Globe (c) Marc Brenner - Michelle Terry playing Viola.
Twelfth Night, Shakespeare’s Globe – Michelle Terry playing Viola – (c) Marc Brenner.

In such a context, the play’s subtitle, What You Will, comes into its own. Given the binge of self-disguising and the assumption of other characters which follows the arrival of the shipwrecked survivors to Illyria’s shore, we find ourselves in a festival of identity theft. Pretend to be who you are not, runs the notion, and see how people take you at face value. This is true across the board of human interaction, whether it concerns professions, sexual orientation or gender itself. Since actors make a living out of such pretence, why should civilians not turn similar tricks?

And turn them they do in a carefully crazed rendering by the Globe’s associate artistic director Sean Holmes, in which the comedy of wooing and the tragedy of (perceived) bereavement find themselves locked into a battle like rivalrous lovers. Holmes’s principal ally in the venture is the artistic director Michelle Terry. It is she who takes the part of the play’s crucial, driving figure, Viola, in love with Duke Orsino, who is in love with Countess Olivia, who then falls for Viola who is dressed as her supposedly drowned twin brother Sebastian, who… the best way to define, or attempt to define, the plot is to filch from the play itself the line where Fabian says to Sir Toby Belch: “If this were played upon a stage now, I could condemn it as an improbable fiction.

This is first of the theatre’s productions with actual groundlings in the audience since the start of the pandemic, and their presence brings to the proceedings a welcome sense of normality, even nostalgia for that distant pre-
Covidian world.

The casting of the comic roles is ingeniously provocative, with Nadine Higgin as a conventionally corpulent but also black and female Sir Toby Belch; Victoria Elliott as a bracingly upbeat Geordie Feste, and Sophie Russell bringing rare pathos to the failed machinations of Malvolio.

Right from the start, with the intriguing use of the Victorian English song “Silver Dagger,” made famous almost half a century ago by Joan Baez and Bob Dylan, the music enters the Wooden O of Shakespeare’s world at unexpected angles, and is handled with fine sensitivity by the five musicians.

It is Elliott’s rendering of the final song which springs one of the best surprises of the night. Often taken to be a rueful valediction, harping on about how the rain it raineth every day, it is here given a smart kick up the backside as she and the company turn it into a monster jam. You could call it a showstopper if it weren’t for the fact that the play ends here anyway.

By this time the minstrel has morphed (the trend is infectious) into some timeless punk hellraiser, joined at full volume by the handily placed band of locals. Feste and the Illyrians, with a hit on their hands. Such stuff as dreams are made on, as Shakespeare was to write in a later play.

4 stars

Review by Alan Franks

Illyria is a society in limbo, held captive by loss. Until a sea-drenched stranger arrives and unexpectedly unleashes the chaotic and transformative power of love.

Wild, surprising, fierce and funny, fiery new ★★★★ (Guardian, Telegraph) production, this version of Shakespeare’s comedy is directed by Globe Associate Artistic Director Sean Holmes and is infused with the mesmeric nostalgia and soulful music of the world of Americana.

Twelfth Night and A Midsummer Night’s Dream will be created and performed by the same ensemble.



  • Alan Franks

    Alan Franks is one of the senior reviewers for LondonTheatre1.com, contributing regularly with reviews for London and regional shows, as well as reporting on press launches. Alan Franks was a Times feature writer for more than thirty years, specialising in the arts and interviewing many leading actors, writers and directors, including Arthur Miller, Peter Hall, Woody Allen, Judi Dench and Stephen Sondheim. He is the author of several plays, including The Mother Tongue starring Prunella Scales, and his latest novel, The Notes of Dr. Newgate, is published by Muswell Press. http://www.alanfranks.com

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