Review: Twelfth Night, King's Theatre, Edinburgh

Neil Cooper, three stars

If William Shakespeare was the original gender bender, the current emancipation of non-binary identity politics suggests the world is slowly catching up with him. Enter Merely Theatre, the young company currently working with an agenda of stripped-down, gender-neutral renditions of the bard's finest works. With male and female performers 'twinned' to play a particular set of roles, the boy/girl permutations in Merely's five actor versions of the plays are seemingly endless.

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What this means in the first of two productions touring in tandem is a carnivalesque knockabout rom-com, which begins with a sort-of sing-along, as Tamara Astor's Feste takes the opening 'If music be the food of love' line literally. This sets the tone, as Emmy Rose's shipwrecked Viola puts on the mantle of what looks like a sailor on shore leave called Cesario in order to cosy up to Hannah Ellis' local high hid' yin, Duke Orsino. Sarah Peachey's Olivia in turn falls for 'Cesario', but also has a suitor in Robert Myles' uptight Malvolio. This inspires Toby Belch, also played by Ellis, to prank Malvolio into thinking he's party to Olivia's fetish for bright yellow hosiery.

While such casting is by no means new, Scott Ellis' production nevertheless makes free with the sort of cross-gender playfulness that is inherent in Shakespeare's work, which subverted the restrictions of his day. Beyond his own lines, this allows too for a hip to the minute contemporary pop parlance that lends things a youthful zest. As the cast run riot in the auditorium at various points, co-opting audience members as they go, an anarchic streak which seems more akin to street theatre reigns throughout a boisterous piece of cartoon fun.