As someone from Stratford-upon-Avon, I’m no stranger to Shakespeare. Walking through the quaint town centre, you can’t shake a feathered quill without bumping into a street performer bellowing lines from King Lear.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m a Shakespeare fan. Among my prized-possessions as a teen was a copy of Shakespeare’s sonnets, I rented Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo and Juliet from the video shop 10,000 times, and often frequented the RSC. But, occasionally, Shakespeare can feel antiquated, like that vintage coat you really love but smells a bit old.

Enter the Royal Exchange and award-winning director, Jo Davies, and their latest adaptation of Twelfth Night. A cross-dressing comedy, it stars a diverse and talented cast, including Manchester trans performer Kate O’Donnell in the role of Feste.

Twelfth Night, Royal Exchange ManchesterI’m sure Shakespeare aficionados will beg to differ, but it’s important to keep the plays relevant, to whirl everything up and subvert them. To shipwreck them. Now Manchester is making Shakespeare more accessible, whether it’s taking A Midsummer Night’s Dream to Instagram (Northern Rep) or turning sonnets into short stories about binge-drinking and break-ups (Sonnets in the City).

On the walk back to Boddington’s car park, Housemate and I discuss how “there’s a Shakespeare play for everything – war, gender, love”. While there’s not yet an app for everything we experience, there is a Shakespeare play.

RET Twelfth Night Kate Kennedy Olivia image by Jonathan-KeenanBut I digress, back to Twelfth Night. The play sees twins Viola (Faith Omole) and Sebastian (Daniel Francis-Swaby) separated in a shipwreck. Viola then disguises herself as a fella and ends up falling in love with Duke Orsino (Kevin Harvey) who believes she is a he, and that he’s madly in love – or so he thinks – with Countess Olivia. Still with me? But then Sebastian shows up with Antonio in tow (Aaron Anthony) and that’s where things start to get a bit tricky.

Alongside this love triangle (or square), which is worthy of an episode of Corrie, there’s the scheming of Maria (Mina Anwar), Sir Toby Belch (Simon Armstrong) and Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Harry Atwell) as they try to get one over on Malvolio (Anthony Calf), who is the epitome of hipster – beard, fold-up bicycle and lashings of hand sanitiser. There’s a scene which takes ‘yellow stockings’ to a whole new Lycra-tight level, and you won’t know where to look.

RET Twelfth Night Harry Attwell Sir Andrew Aguecheek image by Jonathan KeenanSir Andrew is often a blink-and-you’ll-completely-forget-it part, and he’s rarely given credit for lines that make you belly-laugh. But Atwell is one of the stand-out performances of the evening. His comic-timing is on point (complete with best drunk face and an excellent mane of hair) and he brings a joviality to the part.

The troupe are talented performers. From love-struck Orsino and the earnest Antonio to an electric guitar-wielding Sir Toby, each actor brings something new to well known characters. I’m also a huge fan of the range of accents – from Mancunian to Scouse to Londoner – permeating the stage.

Faith Omole excels as the zealous Viola but some of her funnier moments fall a bit flat because her lines are so fast-paced. If you manage to catch them, you’ll realise that Omole switches between serious and comic with ease.

It’s tough to miss the comic brilliance of Kate Kennedy as Olivia. Statuesque and with fabulous heels, Kennedy delivers lines that will have single girls in stitches. Housemate and I howl with laughter (Housemate even does the knee-slapping thing she’s accustomed to when she finds something hysterical) as Olivia appears on stage in a wedding gown and says to Sebastian, “forgive my haste”. Then, after realising there’s not one but two swoon-worthy Cesarios, Olivia turns to the audience and expresses her joy at the duplication. Queue more hysterical laughter from two 30-something girls in the third row.

RET Twelfth Night - Kate O'Donnell (Feste) image by Jonathan KeenanBut if you unwrap all the playfulness, there’s a serious theme at the play’s heart. It’s about love, longing, identity and gender – all relevant topics for a modern audience.

While the Exchange’s casting of O’Donnell will promote her activism, and take Twelfth Night to an audience who might not usually fancy a night of Shakespeare, the inclusion of a trans performer is not a ploy. Davies chose to make the part of Feste female to bridge the glaring gender gap in the play, and has absolutely cast the right person. O’Donnell breathes new life into Feste. There’s a saucy, cheeky, cabaret air about the fool which makes the role more entertaining. Compared to her fellow performers, O’Donnell is not ‘Shakespeare trained’ and while this is evident in the way she delivers her lines it adds to the character, rather than distracts. It sets her apart from the others who are caught up in games and folly. O’Donnell ends with a song, poignant for the show, but also touching because of her own journey. Watching her stand alone on stage, delivering Feste’s story, is incredibly powerful.  

RET Twelfth Night - Faith Omole (Viola) image Jonathan KeenanMusic is integral to this production and musicians Kate Young and Joseph Gravil are wonderful. There’s a scene where Viola sings and Gravil taps away at his guitar with such ease and talent. The stage is sparse, dotted with a few chairs, and the light shines aquamarine. A chandelier descends from the ceiling and a broken table pops up from the ground to show the changing of scenes. There’s a huge cage-like structure suspended in the centre, made entirely from bits of wood, to mark the shipwreck and serves as a great prop. And a trolley decorated with balloons, fairy-lights and what looks like an old bit of tinsel which makes me think of Manchester’s Market Street after-hours. The costumes are modern – think gothic lace, ripped jeans, tatty joggers, loafers, and then there’s O’Donnell’s ocean-coloured, sparkly dress.

If you’re a fan of Shakespeare, or reckon it isn’t for you, you should see this Twelfth Night. During a time when we’re feeling lost and uncertain, Shakespeare’s words resonate. The Exchange has done a sterling job with Twelfth Night, given it a modern context and pulled it head-first into 2017.

By Emma Yates-Badley

Photos by Jonathan Keenan



Twelfth Night is at Manchester’s Royal Exchange until May 20, 2017. For more information and tickets, visit the Royal Exchange’s website.

To read Emma’s interview with Kate O’Donnell, click here