Manchester Theatre Awards

> Independent informed reviews by the region’s most experienced critics

Twelfth Night

William Shakespeare

Royal Exchange, Manchester
13 April 2017 to 20 May 2017

The gender-bending possibilities of Shakespeare’s cross-dressing comedy have opened it up to some new interpretations this year.

First the National Theatre with Tamsin Greig’s ‘Malvolia’ character and now the Exchange cast Manchester-based transgender artist and activist Kate O’Donnell as Feste, the Fool, in a similar attempt at revealing the play’s thoughts on sexual diversity and acceptance.

It’s not her fault that her character here gives the impression of someone wandering in and out of the play like a clubland comedian from a performance going on next door.

At least director Jo Davies never gets too heavy-handed in her approach. This Twelfth Night remains a comedy first and foremost, even if Davies – with her solid background in opera – seems content to introduce more music and some physical comedy flourishes, than concerning herself with the humour in the actual play. Several scenes are rushed and garbled, whereas the sight gags are given plenty of room to breathe.

It’s always a challenge here to spin a story right around the Exchange space, and after some attempts to do so this production seems to give up entirely in the final moments when characters stand motionless and – worse still – block audience sightlines of the play’s Big Reveal.

There are just about enough compensations though.

Kate Kennedy, as Olivia, and Harry Attwell (Sir Andrew) both use their lofty frames to full physical advantage and she, especially, brings a lexicon of expression into play. A face, and a name, to remember. He also hooks up with Simon Armstrong's Sir Toby to resemble a couple of washed-up rock gods – the latter with red Fender in hand.

Faith Omole brings a delicate vulnerability to the wooing scenes as Viola/Cesario and Anthony Calf suffers all the ritual indignities as Malvolio, including being cross-Lycra’d!

Musical director Tarek Merchant’s Balkan-fused contributions add considerably to the tone and style of a production where you might buy the album - before you would be won over by the overall effect.

Reviewer: David Upton

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Comments

Comment by Paul Genty

For me the show was very entertaining throughout, without being particularly special. Unlike David's experience, most of the action seemed to be taking place towards his side of the theatre - because on my side we frequently had actors talking while facing away and the language wasn't quite so distinct and precise.

But I enjoyed the musical accompaniment and loved Kate Kennedy, who as I've said elsewhere reminded me, with her height, comic timing and expressive face, of a young Alison Janney.

I don't recall seeing her on stage before but hope this won't be her one and only appearance in the area.

Comment by Lizz Clark

Mina Anwar's very funny Maria, and the expressive Kate Kennedy as Olivia, bring a bit of verve and originality to this otherwise fairly pedestrian Twelfth Night. I agree with the comment that some wordier parts of the script are rushed over to make room for sight gags - perhaps judicious script editing would have helped with this. But the visual comedy isn't bad (especially the occasional play on Anwar and Kennedy's height difference).

It's a nifty idea to make Sir Toby an ageing rocker and Malvolio a bike-riding hipster, though these up-to-date costumes clash confusingly with the britches and knee-socks worn by Cesario and Sebastian, making the twins look out of place in their own play. 

Neither Kate O'Donnell's Feste nor Faith Omole's Viola is pitched quite right - Omole seems a touch too intense, O'Donnell too relaxed - but this is a minor issue. The publicised casting of an out trans woman as a male character seems like a half-hearted attempt at social commentary, made all the muddier when Feste dons a fake beard and lowers her voice to impersonate another character. It's worth remembering that for all its fun with identity-switching, the play delights in putting everyone back in their socially prescribed boxes at the end. I think O'Donnell's final song is supposed to leave us questioning this neat structure, making some point or other about gender identity, but it doesn't quite work for me.