The auditorium at the Rose comprises a fairly conventional studio theatre which, instead of a back wall, is open to the damp pit, lit with red neon strip-lighting, which is all that remains of the 1587 Rose – Bankside's first theatre. Permanently Bard's Twelfth Night opens with the cast lined up along the far wall, separated from the audience by the archaeological tundra, dancing in the grip of pounding electro beats and strobe lighting as Orsino bellows across the chasm at them, "If music be the food of love, play on!"
It's a fun, punchy opening gambit, and although the postmodern touches are spread relatively thin through the ensuing one hour and 45 minutes, it shows that director Sean Turner and the company have thought about how best to engage with the unusual space at their disposal.
Twelfth Night is one of Shakespeare's most popular plays, with its upstairs plot featuring a gender-bent love triangle (ultimately quadrangle) beset with mistaken identities, and the downstairs plot revolving around the revellers' hosiery-themed vengeance on officious butler Malvolio. The former is derailed just slightly by the comic height difference between the identical twins ("an apple cleft in two is not more twin than these two creatures", says Antonio at the play's climax; the audience raise a collective eyebrow in polite scepticism). Undoubtedly, it is difficult to cast male and female actors who look sufficiently alike for the confusion to ring true, but I felt that the production missed the opportunity to have fun with the discrepancy, particularly given that Olivia, too, towers over Viola-as-Cesario.
The cast of eleven, and the carefully trimmed text, make the story clear and fast-paced, although Esther-Grace Button as Viola and Bryony Meredith as Olivia treat the upstairs plot with a touch more solemnity than it really merits. As is almost always the case, it is the hedonistic alliance of Feste, Toby, Andrew and Maria which provides the play's main energy. Feste's three songs, accompanied on acoustic guitar, have been set to music beautifully by Stefan Galt, but Feste and Toby are also liable to burst into renditions of George Michael's "Faith", or keep time with a pair of spoons, making the audience clap along.
All four actors contribute to the joyful sense of misrule which dominates their scenes, but it is Richard Fish's histrionic Sir Toby who takes the lead: his portrayal of belching Bacchanalian excess is charismatic as well as repellent, the surprising delicacy of his hesitant romance with Maria is touching, and he doesn't shy away from the darker side of the character: his later dealings with Malvolio show him up as a vindictive, overbearing bully. In contrast, Wil Colman's Malvolio is less tyrannical than he is often played; he is more reserved and wounded.
While the stage business takes in a digital camera (which a member of the audience is enlisted to use to take a picture of Feste, Toby and Andrew), a decidedly modern selection of drinks and the eclectic musical interludes, the costumes by Mike Lees are sumptuously Elizabethan. Sir Andrew's, in particular, caught my eye, with his voluminous gold brocade breeches, but every costume is meticulously period-appropriate and visually stunning. Given that the Rose has little capacity for set and the space itself is aesthetically rather bleak and unforgiving, the costumes did a lot of work to produce an overall feeling of unapologetic extravagance, quite apart from ensuring that the young cast look uniformly fabulous.
Most of the play took place in the main performance space, intimately close to the audience – so much so, indeed, that the couple opposite look quite worried that Feste's tumbling will land him in their laps, and Toby frequently sits down among the spectators, while Feste uses somebody in the front row as a human guitar stand on more than one occasion. The production is stalking a fine line between intimate and overcrowded by the final scene, but on the whole, the intimacy is effective. All the more so when the action occasionally decamps to the far side of the sixteenth-century groundlings' pit, where a distant concrete ledge is used as a musician's balcony, a prison cell and, once, a river bank where Toby is discovered peacefully fishing.
There are some discordant elements: the cuts to the text radically marginalise Orsino, which throws the love triangle out of balance, and while Meredith's Olivia does a good line in imperious looks, her infatuation with Cesario doesn't quite convince. The duel fought with umbrellas is fun, but it is also the only moment when the play genuinely feels stifled by the limited stage space. Nonetheless, this is a confident and vivacious version of Twelfth Night; not always entirely coherent, but always entertaining.