Theatre review: Twelfth Night, Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh

Christopher Green has some powerful moments as the puritanical steward Malvolio. Picture: Mihaela Bodlovic
Christopher Green has some powerful moments as the puritanical steward Malvolio. Picture: Mihaela Bodlovic
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TO ANYONE who went to university in the early 1970s, there’s something eerily familiar about the opening scene of Wils Wilson’s new Lyceum production of Twelfth Night, co-produced with Bristol Old Vic. The big, old Edwardian or Victorian house that’s cheap because of its dilapidation, the crowds of young people bent on partying for days on end, and above all the clothes, from sharp business suits satirically worn, to wildly flared jeans, glittering platform shoes, and trailing dresses and kaftans worn with elaborate eye make-up, by both sexes.

Twelfth Night, Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh ****

The influence of Bowie and of the Mick Jagger film Performance therefore looms large, as Wilson’s 12-strong company find an old copy of Twelfth Night, and start allocating roles. Dawn Sievewright’s startling but often brilliant Toby Belch is a young woman in a three-piece suit, and the twins Sebastian and Viola are played with terrific flair by a small pale Scot (Joanne Thomson) and a black Londoner (a radiant Jade Ogugua); while composer and musician Meilyr Jones floats the stage in a drifty rainbow gown, helping to deliver a score that ranges from beautiful, trippy versions of the play’s magical songs to a glam-rock number for the transformed Malvolio so excruciating, in its cross-gartered agony, that it’s genuinely hard to watch.

All of which helps to reveal three things, the first being that there’s nothing here that does any actual violence to Shakespeare’s play; the idea of cross-gender casting is written into the grain of this script, and into its ambivalent and melancholy attitude to sexual attraction. The second is that if there is a game being played, then Malvolio is the one character who must not be part of it; Christopher Green has some powerful moments as the puritanical steward, but needs more real distance and gravitas in his relationship with the revellers. And the third is that although cross-gender casting is now all the rage in British theatre, our present age of angry, ideologically-driven gender debates still has plenty to learn, not least from the Seventies, about genuine gender fluidity, and the true freedom to be ourselves in all our moods.

Not all of Wilson’s production works well, in conjuring up these possibilities; it’s a long, baggy show, that sometimes seems unlikely ever to end. That too, though, is in the spirit of this wild and slightly anarchic Twelfth Night party, with its gorgeous set and costumes by Ana Ines Jabares-Pita, lit to perfection by Kai Fischer, in scenes that sometimes look like accidental Renaissance paintings; and with Dylan Read’s brilliantly whimsical Feste leading the company to a conclusion as sad and wise as it is playful, the Lyceum offers us a Shakespeare to remember, not for the traditionally-minded or the faint-hearted, but full of visual richness, passion, poetry and thought.

JOYCE MCMILLAN

Until 6 October