By Jack Mansfield
(spoiler warning for Twelfth Night, I guess? I mean it has been out for 400 years but hey)
How now, reader! In this article, I’ll be writing not about a film or anything on-screen, but about the format’s predecessor: theatre. Recently I visited the Globe Theatre in London where I saw William Shakespeare’s timeless comedy Twelfth Night: a raucous tale of mistaken identity, packed with romance and bittersweet humour. But the experience felt like so much more than just going to the theatre to see a play. It was like being in limbo between two eras in time, like being a part of a Tudor audience whilst in the 21st Century, but I’ll talk more about that later on. It was my first time visiting the Globe, and I’d seen it in pictures and on TV before but I couldn’t really imagine what it would be like to stand in the theatre’s famous yard myself.
Not only was it my first time going to the Globe, but also the first time in 18 years that I’d travelled up to London on my own. Even though I’ve just lived a whole year of independence at university, it felt odd to be travelling to the capital by myself. Sitting there on the train, looking out of the window as I pulled into Waterloo Station, I looked up at the thick grey clouds and just knew that, as soon as we made our way into the yard, those heavens would open (spoiler alert: I was right.) There aren’t many places that can look good in the bad weather, but as I made my way down London’s iconic South Bank, passing the National Theatre, the Tate Modern and the OXO tower to name but a few landmarks, I looked out across the River Thames at St Paul’s Cathedral and the Millenium Bridge under a blanket of grey. London – particularly along the Thames – never fails to amaze me no matter the weather. The city exerts a different kind of beauty to somewhere like Paris or Rome, but one that you can’t help but love.
I went to the Globe with Gabriela, who studies English Literature with me at UEA, and some friends of hers from back home. Our day began not at the globe, however, but instead, we met up at a nearby Bierkeller (literally, beer cellar). In true student fashion, our grand day out began with a drink; just the one though, we students aren’t used to London prices after all! Tankards of beer finished, we made our way around the corner to the Globe, which is less of a towering marvel like many of the other iconic landmarks that occupy London’s skyline, more of a hidden gem. It’s relatively easy to miss, hiding in between the OXO tower and Borough Market. But when you do find it, the reward is a wonderful performance of a classic play in one of the most revered theatres around the globe (Shakespeare himself would have been proud of that one!)
Sadly, it’s not the first, original incarnation of the theatre. The original Globe Theatre was lost when it burned down in the autumn of 1613 when, during a performance of Henry VIII, the firing of a cannon caused the thatch roof to catch fire. In one of the few surviving documents from the fire, it states that no one was hurt, but a man had to have his burning breeches put out with a bottle of ale. After this alcoholic escape, the second Globe was quickly rebuilt on the other side of the Thames and then closed again by order of the Puritans in 1642. Two years later, the second Globe was taken down as it was deemed to be of no further use, so the one that now stands on the riverside is only twenty years old; however, it still holds the power to make you feel like you’ve travelled back to the late Tudor era.
Earlier I mentioned about being stuck in between two different ages in time, and I think this was accentuated by the aesthetic of Emma Rice’s take on Shakespeare’s cross-dressing comedy, Twelfth Night. I hadn’t read any reviews prior to going to see it, so I was surprised to find out that it wasn’t a period production but was a more modern iteration of the story instead. I had heard that it wouldn’t be to the great tastes of the Shakespeare purists amongst crowds in the Globe, and this was certainly the case as the opening ten minutes includes a cruise liner in full party mode, the 70s Sister Sledge classic ‘We Are Family’ as a musical number, and drag queen Le Gateau Chocolat as a wonderfully bearded, bald, booming Feste. I can only imagine the horror on the faces of the Globe board when the curtain first rose on this production.
And it only got more zany and raucous as it went on, which is exactly as you’d expect from such a story. Twelfth Night centres around two twins, Sebastian (John Pfumojena) and Viola (Anita-Joy Uwajeh), who are shipwrecked off the coast of Illyria (in this adaptation the location is reimagined as a Scottish island in the 1970s) and the two are separated. In order to try and find her brother, Viola disguises herself as a young male servant, Cesario, and goes to work for Duke Orsino (Joshua Lacey). Orsino is lovestruck for the disdainful Olivia (Annette McLaughlin), Viola comes to love Orsino; there’s a general air of longing and heartthrob.
Of course, with many Shakespeare plays, there is a double plot, and Twelfth Night is no exception. Also living in Olivia’s house are her roaring drunk uncle Sir Toby (Tony Jayawardena), his fool of a friend Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Marc Antolin) and the steward of the house, Malvolio (Katy Owen). If you know the play, you know that Toby and Andrew are riotous housemates, and Jayawardena and Antolin own the stage whenever they grace it. From Sir Toby chipping golf balls into the stage to Sir Andrew’s “duel” with Viola – which is altered by Rice, becoming a hilariously over-the-top boxing match with massive gloves.
As excellent as the two hellraisers are, it’s Katy Owen as Malvolio who really steals the show. In the wake of the controversial casting of Jodie Whittaker as the 13th (and first female) Doctor in Doctor Who, casting classic male characters as a female has been a hot topic. But there should be absolutely no quarrel from anyone in this case as Owen is utterly fantastic (also, female roles were always taken by men back in the day so I think there’s some evening out to do.) She takes a character typically played by older men who can carry an air of contempt: some notable actors to have undertaken the role include Sir Alec Guinness, Richard Briers, Sir Derek Jacobi, and Richard Wilson. So, for Owen to take on the role and completely turn it on its head is an amazing thing to see. Malvolio is now a Welsh, tweedy, whistle-peeping midget, and watching him prance from stage left to stage right is an absolute joy.
The costumes worn in the production were outstanding and as outlandish as the play itself. Ask anyone what they remember from Twelfth Night and there’s a very good chance they’ll mention Malvolio’s iconic yellow tights. Of course, in an adaptation of Twelfth Night including Sister Sledge’s ‘We Are Family’, there was no way Rice would omit such an integral, yet bizarre part of the play. Where most costume designers opt for the classic skin-tight yellow tights, in this production (and more in keeping with the idea of a Scottish island-esque Illyria), Malvolio wears something closer to a golf outfit, but just as outlandish.
I’d never seen a production of a Shakespeare play that wasn’t period; the production of King Lear I saw was a strange mix of period and WWI, an outdoor A Midsummer Night’s Dream in the driving rain was as authentic as it was soggy, so to see such a wild reimagining of a classic Shakespearean comedy with both visual and idiomatic comedy that stands the test of time was not only refreshing, but also positively shocking. As Shakespeare wrote in As You Like It, “All the world’s a stage”, but no stage anywhere around the world (certainly that I’ve been to) quite compares to the historically rich, beautifully intimate Globe Theatre. It’s safe to say that I’ll be returning very soon.