REVIEW: Twelfth Night (Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester)

Faith Omole as Viola in Twelfth Night at Manchester's Royal Exchange © Jonathan Keenan
Faith Omole as Viola in Twelfth Night at Manchester’s Royal Exchange
© Jonathan Keenan

“If music be the food of love, play on” and certainly the production of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night at Manchester’s Royal Exchange is full of music, mirth and mischief, particularly during one particular night of mayhem when encouraged by Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Harry Attwell), a drunken Sir Toby (Simon Armstrong) wakes up the household with his electric guitar.

Following a terrible storm, Viola has found herself shipwrecked and washed up on the sandy and unfamiliar shores of Illyria. In her only bid for survival, Viola (Faith Omole) disguises herself as male, changes her name to Cesario, and goes to work in the household of Duke Orsino (Kevin Harvey). With powerful waves of unrequited love, gender and sexual identity guiding Shakespeare’s verse – this production at the Royal Exchange is a complete success and arguably one of the best Shakespeare adaptations that I have seen.

Quirky casting by Vicky Richardson teamed with Jo Davies’ intelligent direction makes for a refreshing interpretation of a play that was written over 400 years ago. Kate Kennedy’s striking Olivia towers over Faith Omole’s diminutive Cesario; confidante Cesario holds the punch bag gingerly while Orsino bolsters and pummels. Our Malvolio, played by Anthony Calf, gives a perfect portrayal of the party-pooper and prissy steward. Davies and Designer Leslie Travers substitute Malvolio’s traditional yellow stockings and cross-gartered look in favour of gaudy lycra MAMIL attire.

Kate O’Donnell steals the show as a witty, lively and self-assured Feste. Giving a whole new perspective to the character, O’Donnell exudes elegance and foolery. Dressed in a luminous turquoise get up and feathered head-dress, she reminds me of a glamorous Statue of Liberty. Suggestive of freedom in regards to gender and sexual identity and almost definitely reminding us of the lack of trans actors on the professional stage.

Alex Baranowski’s Eastern European musical score of fiddler, harpsichord and folk vocalist Kate Young provide a pleasing backdrop to the romantic entanglements, frivolous comedy and disguises in love. In a poignant framing, the Eastern tones lay the sombre tone for Viola’s shipwreck at the very start and then return for The Wind and The Rain ditty delivered by Feste at the end of the performance. As the lights fade and the melancholy returns O’Donnell feeds new life and meaning into Shakespeare’s poetry, singing the final line  “When I was a little boy.” Absolutely captivating.

-Kristy Stott

Twelfth Night runs at Manchester’s Royal Exchange Theatre until 20 May 2017 and you can get your tickets here.

REVIEW – The Rolling Stone (Royal Exchange)

Fiston Barek as Dembe & Faith Omole as Wummie © Jonathan Keenan 

 Date: 24 april 2015
Upstaged rating: 

The Rolling Stone written by Chris Urch was a Bruntwood Prize Winner in 2013 – now it runs in rep alongside Anna Karenina at Manchester’s Royal Exchange. Set in Uganda, where it is illegal to have a homosexual relationship, it tells the story of Dembe who has fallen in love with Irish doctor, Sam. The play centres around the true story of Ugandan newspaper, The Rolling Stone which used its front page to out gay men by publishing their names, addresses and photographs. This publicised witch-hunt incited violence against these men, their families and anybody who supported them.

“The Lord wants us to be truly who we are”

Joanna Scotcher’s set is perfectly stark, a blue carpeted stage with a simple raised platform in the centre, provides the perfect foundations for Chris Urch’s sensitive, honest and thought provoking script. Richard Owen’s lighting design is tasteful and stylish throughout – opening the production with a soft blue light, as the cast of six sing in beautiful harmony, their voices flood the stage, ironically, it all feels calm and utopian.

Robert Gilbert as Sam and Fiston Barek as Dembe  ©Jonathan Keenan
Robert Gilbert as Sam and Fiston Barek as Dembe
©Jonathan Keenan

The scenes between Dembe (Fiston Barek) and his lover, Sam (Robert Gilbert) feel natural and playful – when they are on stage together there is a great chemistry and it is these sections which generate laughter from the audience. Barek is superb in portraying Dembe’s coming of age, balancing youthful wit with bravery and sensitivity, in a society where he is fearful of his own identity. When Dembe’s brother Joe (Sule Rimi) is made pastor of the local parish, the circle of scrutiny moves uncomfortably closer to Dembe and his family. Ellen McDougall’s direction is masterfully reflective of the kind of society that the characters inhabit – the actors sit with the audience when they are not on stage, watching Dembe’s every move.

“God is a fallacy. It is us that judge one another”

The Rolling Stone is expertly cast with every member of the production giving an outstanding  performance. Despite, her lack of voice, Ony Uhiara shines as the mute character Naome, who is overshadowed by her mother, Mama played by Donna Berlin. Faith Omole impresses as Wummie, Dembe’s twin sister, a victim of her society in her own right when she forfeits her education to aid her brother.

The Rolling Stone is a powerful production and highly compelling viewing. Chris Urch’s writing really draws its audience in, this is a real edge-of-your seat captivating drama, where we can engage with the characters, empathise with their predicaments and wish that we could influence their futures.

The Rolling Stone is running at The Royal Exchange in Manchester until the 1st May 2015.

-Kristy Stott