Review: Twelfth Night, Royal Exchange

“When that I was a little boy”

Even with the best of intentions, it can be a little too easy to forget that there’s more to LGBT+ than just the G. Representations of gay men are increasingly common in our theatres but pickings are slim if we look towards the lesbian, bi, and transgender characters and stories. So it’s interesting to see directors turning to Shakespeare, and specifically Twelfth Night, to address that in a couple of high profile productions this year. Simon Godwin shifted the nature of Malvolio’s illicit passion by casting Tamsin Greig as Malvolia, and now Jo Davies has moved along the acronym by casting transgender performer, writer and activist Kate O’Donnell as Feste at the Royal Exchange.

And far from any suggestion of a gimmick, it’s a deeply sensitive, nuanced take on the role that breathes a real sense of contemporary life into the show. Her experience on the cabaret circuit shows in the ease with which she entertains her audience, whether onstage with the text or bantering off-book with the stalls crowd in the interval, but as funny as she is, there’s a depth to her stage presence too. An extra-textual moment where she clocks the cross-dressed Viola in the dark with a hint of recognition, the gorgeous melancholy with which the resonance of her final song grabs you – “when I came to man’s estate…”, this is the verse sprung to life anew.

This is far from just Feste’s show though, the ensemble is shot through with quality to provide a most entertaining take on this oft-performed play. Kate Kennedy uses every inch of her 6 foot 3 frame to glorious effect as an Olivia who is more keen than most to cast off her mourning weeds as ultimately evidenced by the splendid randiness of her ‘Most wonderful!’, coming close to Alexandra Gilbreath’s all-time-greatest rendition. There’s comedy too, physically in the height disparity with Faith Omole’s Cesario but also through the delicious chemistry between the pair, listening to them spar verbally is a real pleasure.

There’s joy too in the beautiful use of music and song – composed by Alex Baranowski and played live, dark folk mixed with electric guitar, none better than Cesario’s unashamed aural seduction of Kevin Harvey’s most appealing man-boy of an idle-rich Orsino. Anthony Calf’s contemptuous Malvolio is a slightly OCD cyclist, which plays out hilariously in several ways, and Mina Anwar is a striking Maria (one who is far too good for this Sir Toby though). Leslie Travers’ design uses sand in the most ingenious way and her modern-dress costumes are full of some exceptional tailoring – Olivia and Feste both sport highly desirable overcoats.

So a freshly imaginative interpretation then and given that this is my third Twelfth Night of the year, very much successful in that enterprise without feeling the need to drastically reconceive its approach to Shakespeare. For its changes are subtle, no less important for their imperceptibility but you suspect this is how we effectively change the worldview when it comes to trans visibility and integration into a wider theatrical culture that has done too little for it thus far. Bravo to O’Donnell, Davies and the entire Royal Exchange team. 

Running time: 3 hours (with interval)
Photos: Jonathan Keenan
Booking until 20th May

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