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