OVO’s reimagining of Twelfth Night begins like any other: at sea, with the devastating shipwreck that separates twins Viola (Lucy Crick) and Sebastian (Joshua Newman). But unlike most, this version never reaches land, as vaudeville performer Viola is saved from the waves and brought on board the cruise ship SS Illyria at the height of the roaring 20s. In this adaptation, Orsino (Will Forester) is the captain, Olivia (Emma Watson) is a fabulously famous actress, and Lady Toby Belch (Anna Franklin) is a washed up music hall star (I’m not being mean; that’s what it says in the programme).
It’s a clever premise, and one that works particularly well at the Rose Playhouse, where it takes very little imagination to transform the small wooden stage area into a ship’s deck. By setting the action at sea, director Adam Nichols brings to the production an atmosphere of stifling luxury; at the end of the day, this is basically a story of bored rich people amusing themselves with drink, song and fairly meaningless romantic dalliances. It’s still a comedy with plenty of laugh out loud moments, but this version places more emphasis on the spiteful bullying of Olivia’s uptight PA Malvolia (Faith Turner) and nice but dim “upper class twit” Sir Andrew Aguecheek (James Douglas). It feels appropriate, then, that these two characters should get to have the final word – though it’s equally disheartening that most of the others, having had a good laugh about it all, don’t bother to stick around to hear it.
Equally interesting is the gender switching, inspired by the changes that took place around gender and sexuality in the 1920s. Two pivotal characters – Malvolia and Lady Toby – are now women, which mixes things up not only in terms of the potential romantic pairings but also the gender politics. Orsino might be the ship’s captain in name, but in reality the male characters are reduced to little more than onlookers who things happen to; it’s the women who drive the action forward, and though some of their actions are despicable, that new perspective feels refreshing and rather enjoyable.
The 20s setting is punctuated by jazz versions of more recent hits from the likes of Britney, Rihanna and Katy Perry, which should probably feel jarring but actually works surprisingly well. That said, there are a lot of songs squeezed into quite a short play (90 minutes), not all of which contribute much to the plot – although there are undeniably some great performances, particularly from Hannah Francis-Baker’s Feste, who in this version is not a Fool but the ship’s Master of Ceremonies. In addition to singing, the cast also provide their own music, with the piano in particular a vital and extremely adaptable part of the set that’s played (and/or climbed on) by most members of the cast at some point.
One small but bothersome plot niggle aside – where was Sebastian for the last three months, and how come nobody ever ran into him? – this is an inventive and well-executed reimagining of a well-known comedy. There are laughs aplenty, but where the play really shows its strength is in its drawing out of the nastier aspects of human nature, which are so often brushed aside or treated as just a bit of fun. This brings a fresh perspective to a story many of us will have seen several times before, and that in itself is quite an achievement.