Despite spending the majority of my life in theatre, with some of my happiest memories watching and performing in Shakespeare productions, I have to admit that before Monday night, I’d never entirely seen myself in them.
It’s not that I couldn’t find representation in performances – whilst the number of shows that gave inspiration to a little black theatre girl are very limited, I was lucky enough to have a drama teacher who actively sought them out, and made sure we saw every single one. Yes, I saw black and brown faces on stage. I saw a fantastic story told by people who looked and sounded like me, but I could never see these stories as something tangible; I just couldn’t feel the deep rooted connection in them that I found in so many other theatrical productions.
When it came to actually performing in Shakespeare, the separation was even stronger. Age 15 I asked my theatre school principal if I could read as Viola during a Twelfth Night workshop day.
“We don’t have a Sebastian for you – they’re meant to be twins. How about Maria!” was the response I, and I’m sure many other POC in theatre received.
For the first time during a Shakespeare play, I felt truly at home.
I was granted no relation to anyone else on stage. Almost always I’ve been cast as the supernatural “sidekick” (Ariel in The Tempest, or Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream). While these are roles I absolutely love, it did sting to never be asked to read for someone else. I sat back with my fairy’s monologue and watched my future castmates who all looked alike get given option after option as to who they could be (there is also something to be said about the only brown actor being cast as what is effectively a nonhuman servant, but that’s an eye roll for another time).
However, as I walked into the theatre for this production of Twelfth Night, it all felt so different.
Before the cast had even come out, the set was fully lit and it sang. I saw my streets, my rows of terraced houses, my pub, my cafe, the “permit holders only” sign that my mum curses at every turn. Strings of world flags as bunting connected each house across the street – a very obvious but honestly quite heartwarming metaphor.
Then the cast burst out. There was singing, dancing, the playing of ball games. In them I saw my sister, my neighbours, my grandma, my aunties. As people threw down cards on the street corner, a woman came out passing food around. For the first time during a Shakespeare play, I felt truly at home.
“The lyrics are smart, funny, and a welcome change of pace for both those already well acquainted with the play, and those who might not know it at all”
Co-directed with Oskar Eustis, the show kick starts Kwame Kwei-Armah’s first season as Artistic Director of the Young Vic with a musical twist on the Shakespeare we all know. The whole show takes place in the run up to Notting Hill carnival: the set made up of rows of colourful houses, the cast throwing barbeques and playing music in full carnival fashion – they were even donning the beloved plastic ponchos during rainy scenes.
The music in the performance was written and composed by Shaina Taub, which was the main drive behind what makes this show stand out. The lyrics are smart, funny, and a welcome change of pace for both those already well acquainted with the play and those who might not know it at all.
Gabrielle Brooks is a star as Viola. Her vocal ability, impeccable timing and command of the room around her left me with goosebumps on my goosebumps. Gbemisola Ikumelo’s performance as Maria was the aunty we all have and love; knowing, sharp and often unintentionally hilarious.
The 30-strong community chorus who first welcome the audience are what give this show the warmth and joy that stays with you all night. They are why this theatre feels like home, friends and neighbours having fun and sharing stories. It’s clear that the directors have done amazing work bringing this cast together, their energy onstage bounces between them and out into the audience in every number.
Go and see this show. It’ll leave you joyful and dancing well out the door. What Kwame Kwei-Armah has brought to the Young Vic is a beautiful celebration of community and home. I felt welcomed and comfortable for the first time, in a world I had been so often told I was an outsider in.
I’ll end with one of Shaina Taub’s lyrics that I found wonderfully relevant to what this piece of theatre did for me:
“You turned the mirror back at me, and for the first time I like what I see”.