Review: Twelfth Night

A daringly modern telling of Shakespeare’s comedy of desire, disguise and deception makes the play seem more true to itself

Abbey Theatre, Dublin

Five large speakers roll on stage, blaring a barely compatible beat and waves of distortion. Although director Wayne Jordan’s brilliantly imaginative new production of Shakespeare’s comedy will feature more transfixing melodies, this death metal belongs to the lovelorn Duke Orsino (a hysterical Barry John O’Connor), and it puts the matter well. In a play about discordant desires, deceptions and disguises, order and chaos work well together: if music be the food of love, rock on.

In this whip-smart production, such transformation is everywhere, from a funeral wreath of black helium balloons to a Prodigy number sung in close harmony. Sophie Robinson's gentle Viola is just as malleable: separated from her twin brother by a shipwreck, she disguises herself as a man, becomes smitten with Orsino and accidentally seduces the object of his desire, Olivia (Natalie Radmall Quirke, stunning and knowing).

Recruiting a young team mostly new to the Abbey, the production looks at the play through clear, contemporary eyes: if Viola’s brother Sebastian (Gavin Fullam) has an erotic intimacy with the captain Antonio (Conor Madden), why be coy about it? Robinson’s cross-gender disguise, likewise, is free from hang-ups. In Ciarán O’Melia’s colourful, sparing design, the play’s subtitle, What You Will, is emblazoned high on a sky-blue wall: part joke, part licence.


It’s a move as smart and self-aware as Ger Kelly’s wise fool Feste and Elaine Fox’s harried servant Valentine, who explore the play while commenting on it. Jordan chooses his modern emphasis carefully. That’s why Mark O’Halloran’s comically severe, expertly performed Malvolio is given prominent place. Gulled into romance, O’Halloran’s transition from killjoy to eccentric is made endearingly brave (and Emma Fraser’s modern costume takes his risk still further). This also makes the cruelty of the ruse much starker. Sir Toby Belch becomes vicious in Nick Dunning’s performance, plotting Malvolio’s humiliation with Ruth McGill’s sinister-sweet Maria. The production’s keenest sympathy is for anyone punished for being themselves. The play’s concluding wedding bells come off as an almost violent resolution after such uninhibited sexual play. The performer’s faces say it all: happily never after.

Nothing makes the show seem so effortlessly equal to Shakespeare as its music. Composed by Tom Lane, performed on dulcimer and vibraphone by Alex Petcu and sung (with a revelatory range) by Kelly's Feste, these songs embrace the text delicately, make it sound new. Feste's counsel for "present laughter" still stands as a shelter from eternal storms of identity and desire, but in Jordan's daring coda, the show is impressively unafraid of the rain. Until May 24

Peter Crawley

Peter Crawley

Peter Crawley, a contributor to The Irish Times, writes about theatre, television and other aspects of culture