Pop-Up Globe’s ‘Twelfth Night,’ at Sky City Theatre, 10-25 February, directed by David Lawrence

TWELFTH NIGHT brings the Pop-Up Globe’s rambunctious take on Shakespeare back to the heart of the city, and leaves the audience buzzing, if not bemused.

Pop-Up Globe was a phenomenon. The largest Shakespearean festival in the Southern Hemisphere, selling 100,000 tickets in its first few seasons here before transferring the fun to Australia to sell several hundred thousands more.

It seemed unstoppable. Until it wasn’t. (Blame Covid.)

Twelfth NightThe reason for the outrageous success was simple to explain: The theatre brought everybody up close, performers and audience almost face to face, with audience both high and low. And the best productions embraced the opportunity, giving us the English language’s greatest shows delivered as they were first intended: not just as high art, or low farce, but as both, with high-blown monologues for the educated, and the cheap dirty jokes for the groundlings. Theatre for all levels. Music, fights and dance; beauty, bawdiness and smut. This was theatre in which you could fully engage both brain and belly. You’d see Chris Huntly-Turner playing Henry V as bloodstained hero one night, and the next night he’d be a sheep.

Twelfth Night

You could see the phenomenon up close in person. A teenager would be dragged by their family unwillingly to the show; berated by them; sullen, told to stay off their phone. By halftime, a miracle had happened: they were bewitched. And then next week, there they were as fanboys and fangirls, haunting the “yard” as groundlings as others might haunt the mosh pit at Whammy Bar, reveling dozens of times in every show. We saw this transformation hundreds of times.

Twelfth NightAnd now here we are at the soulless Sky City Theatre to see the re-return (after last year’s successful Q Theatre run) of two crowd favourites. And it’s a different scene altogether. Few teenagers at all is one clue. And no moshpit. And no strolling players to serenade us in the gardens. (The unlovely Sky City Theatre has no gardens of which to boast.) And you realise again how truly special were those few years at Ellerslie.

So we ask the question: Can you re-bottle lightning?

It has all the right credentials. It’s directed by David Lawrence, who has a long association with the Pop-Up Globe as artistic director. It’s brought to us by Pop-Up’s co-founder, Tobias Grant (the other co-founder, Miles Gregory, now has a new venture, HyperCinema). It’s coupled on alternate nights with the tragedy of Romeo and Juliet, so we get to see our cast playing in both guises. And that cast has many familiar faces from Globe performances of the past.

Comparisons are invidious, but unavoidable. My friends and I, I confess, were unashamed fan-folk of the Pop-Up phenomenon — and the 2016 Twelfth Night was at the pinnacle of our fandom, the standard by which all other later productions were judged. It’s impossible to forget Daniel Watterson’s divine Olivia; and Stephen Butterworth’s Maria, sharing the dry fruits of his buttery bar with Edward Newborn’s incontinent Toby Belch. These are big codpieces to fill.

Twelfth NightAnd the theatre space here is much less forgiving. A performance in Shakespeare’s ‘Wooden O’ is a magnetic experience, the play not so much exhibited for us at one end as much as it happens around us. Physical theatre is rewarded. Audiences leave drenched in (fake) blood. That doesn’t (can’t) happen here. There’s some audience members on stage, and limited byplay with them, but as every band knows, it’s much harder to directly engage an audience without a moshpit.

This is preview night, of course, so our cast are still growing into their roles. It’s a space that needs volume, declamation, and over-acting. The parts are being eased into, the slight musical accompaniment not giving much support. But the audience is supportive (a show of hands revealed most had seen a Globe performance before) and Frith Horan’s hyperactive Feste whips the whole cast into motion, before Bryony Skillington’s delightfully crapulous Toby Belch lights the touchpaper with an easy barf into an audience member’s bag, and then things really begin to fire.

We’re off!

The play revolves around the character confusion of twins, and the intoxication of some apparently man-to-man and woman-to-woman love — popular themes today — and courtly love and pretension quickly become the butt of jokes. Kirsty Bruce gives us an Olivia with some unique attractions. Alice Pearce, understudying one twin in the absence of an ill Ava Rassoul-Khomeini, makes the most of her elevation. The timing and presence of her twin brother Sebastian, played by Jehangir Homavazir, had the audience immediately behind him when he appeared, matched by the impeccable comic timing of his comrade Bala Murali Shingade, making the most of Antonio’s few comic moments.

Pop-Up-Globe favourite Adrian Hooke, who was an entertaining Feste way back in 2016, was this time given few chances to cut a caper as the sober and serious Orsino, who is never more than a mere cypher. He takes his few moments as a fun-filled Fabian, playing pranks on Kevin Keys’s gratifyingly pompous Malvolio. Keys is another old Pop-Up Globe hand, his maturity on the Globe stage seen in his ease at audience interaction in a sometimes-unforgiving role.

We left the theatre fully entertained yet still overwhelmed with nostalgia. It really is difficult to transfer the full physicality of the Globe experience to a theatre like this one.  If I was to carp, better attention to diction and volume would help some to follow a complicated story. And I would say get as close as you can to the stage  to really maximise your fun.

The physical theatre is still there. The bawdiness and humour doesn’t translate quite as well. But this is a damned fine night at the theatre, and the audience left abuzz.

“If music be the food of love, play on!”

Theatre Peter

Tickets and info here.