Seeing Michelle Terry as Viola brings to mind thoughts of her predecessor as Globe artistic director, Mark Rylance, in the same play (as Olivia). What strikes me most is how Rylance seemed the understated anchor in an ebullient production, whereas Terry brings focus and energy to a staging that sometimes lacks momentum.
This is surprising seeing how director Sean Holmes' Midsummer Night's Dream – which also runs at the same address this summer – is such a riot of colour and comedy. Twelfth Night is given a more delicate touch, one that shows plenty of pathos but could do with a little more punch.
This being said, it does contain performances to savour. Alongside Terry, whose Viola yearns magnificently for Bryan Dick's cowboy-ish Orsino, standouts include Nadine Higgin's surprisingly soulful Toby Belch, and Victoria Elliott's honey-voiced Feste. Shona Babayemi's Olivia brings poise aplenty, while Sophie Russell's Malvolio is strikingly ghoulish, emphasised by her gothic get-up. I also enjoyed George Fouracres' foppish Aguecheek, who provides welcome levity. The excellent jazz band is sorely underused, and I say this largely because the music they do provide is such a delight, a blend of blues, soul and even a dash of Tina Turner.
Jean Chan's Americana-infused set – a wrecked pickup truck sits in the pit, while a jukebox, fairground tiger and illuminated 'Welcome to Illyria' sign adorn the stage – is simultaneously evocative and incongruous. Holmes' production never fully explores nor explains why it is steeped in stateside iconography, to the point it feels rather like the company have stumbled into another production and decided to try on the costumes. The dead deer that hangs over the stage throughout only heightens the feeling of oddness.
All the ingredients are there to make this a memorable evening, and there are flashes of brilliance. The idea to have Feste, Belch, Aguecheek and Maria sing together as a way of winding up Malvolio works wonderfully, and gets the entire audience in on the act. And the latter's "yellow stockings", which turns out to be a full onesie crossed by glittering garters, instantly transforms Malvolio from dour servant to harlequinade (hat tip to costume supervisor Sydney Florence). Terry also mines real poignancy from the climactic revelation of Viola's true identity, which can have a tendency to feel glib. But ultimately the parts feel greater than the sum.
Full marks to the Globe for its safety measures – to still have social distancing when many indoor venues do not is commendable. And it is lovely to see the pit filled with standing punters again, who showed great stoicism considering it is run straight through without an interval. For those in the posh seats I would definitely advise to bring a cushion (they are not currently available from the theatre); after two and a half hours, those wooden benches really start to bite.