Kwame Kwei-Armah opens his tenure of this vital theatre with a 90-minute musical adaptation of Shakespeare’s comedy, co-directed with Oskar Eustis and already seen in New York, that will give great pleasure. It has a jaunty score by Shaina Taub, boasts an impressive 30-strong community chorus and is set in a sunlit Notting Hill in the run-up to the annual carnival. It will be hugely popular but, without wishing to be a party pooper, I kept thinking it could be even better.
If anything defines Twelfth Night, it is its opal-like blend of laughter and sadness, gender confusion and sense of mortality. But, though Taub’s score has occasional moments of poignancy as in Feste’s ballad, Is This Not Love?, the prevailing note is one of high-spirited fun. Orsino’s yearning for his hoity-toity neighbour (“She’s still in mourning, she’s unwilling to date”) has little desperation; Viola’s sexual predicament in arousing Olivia’s passion is summed up in her cry of “Oh, shit”; and the climax suggests we are back in the hippy-dippy 60s world of Hair. “If we open our hearts to each other, what a better world it could be,” the chorus sing at the end. The sentiments are admirable, but this is no substitute for Feste’s “The wind and the rain”, which beautifully captures the evanescence both of theatrical performance and life itself.
But the good things about the show are very good indeed. Malvolio is hilariously played by Gerard Carey as a smug git who whizzes about the streets on an electrified scooter. Even if, in the letter-reading scene, we don’t get to see much of the eavesdroppers’ reactions, it still becomes an excuse for a rousing top-hat-and-cane number in which Malvolio sees himself as a tap-dancing star. The excellent Gabrielle Brooks also nods towards Viola’s sexual confusion in a number where she alternates between jacketed boy and blouse-wearing girl, and there are beguiling performances from Natalie Dew as a sexually eager Olivia and Melissa Allen as an accordion-playing Scottish Feste.
Taub’s songs add to the sense of gaiety: the nocturnal carousal of Sir Toby and his fellow topers is turned into a number, You Are the Worst, in which each member of the party is singled out for jovial abuse with Malvolio being the final victim. The songs also give scope to the strong community chorus who execute Lizzi Gee’s choreography with absolute precision: they include, in a welcome touch, a handful of seniors and are ultimately indistinguishable from the professionals.
I still miss Shakespeare’s ability to intertwine comedy and tragedy: the exquisite pathos of Sir Andrew’s “I was adored once too” goes for nothing, and the rapid pairing-off at the show’s conclusion, with even the disgraced Sir Toby and Maria joining in the revels, gives no hint of the implicit strangeness of the situation. It also seems odd, in the midst of modern Notting Hill, for a sword-brandishing Antonio to announce “I was once in a sea-fight with the duke Orsino.” But, all cavils aside, the show gets Kwei-Armah’s Young Vic regime off to a festive, celebratory start. After the cakes and ale, I wait impatiently for the more substantial fare to come.