Friday, 7 April 2017

The National Theatre's 2017 production of William Shakespeare's "Twelfth Night" (1601-2): A Review

This is probably the best production of Twelfth Night I have ever seen. Given that that list includes productions starring Derek Jacobi, Stephen Fry, Ron Cook, Mark Rylance, Indira Varma, Nigel Hawthorne, Imelda Staunton, Ben Kingsley, Richard E. Grant, Helena Bonham Carter, etc., etc., then you know, hopefully, that I do not say that lightly. I should be clear that I have enjoyed most of the other productions very much - the 1990s film version is highly recommended - and Derek Jacobi's performance as Malvolio was an absolute gold standard, the One To Beat, as it were. And yet... and yet... I don't think any of the other productions I've seen quite seized the play by its balls, rewove it into delightfully new patterns and shapes and made me utterly reinterpret things - but the production currently running at the National Theatre starring Tamsin Greig as Malvolia, Phoebe Fox as Olivia and Tamara Lawrence as Viola did all this and more.

It is well known that Twelfth Night was written as an entertainment for, um, Twelfth Night (whether in 1601 or 1602 is hotly contested; the night is 5 or 6 January again depending on whom you ask), an occasion for riotous revelry, banqueting, drinking, masters becoming slaves and slaves becoming masters (borrowed from Saturnalia), and - my favourite tradition - the concealing of a bean and a pea inside Christmas cake, the idea being that the man who found the bean became "King" for the night and the woman who found the pea became "Queen". Charmingly, no one seems to have given much thought to what would happen if a woman found the bean or a man found the pea or indeed the same person found both - no one except Shakespeare, perhaps, who explicitly wove a tale of cross-dressing and reversal of gender roles out of familiar Twelfth Night merrymaking.

The backdrop to the story, then, is one of farcical fun - laughs galore. Parties aplenty. This is one of many areas in which Simon Godwin's NT production absolutely excels: from the musical numbers to the finger-clicking, from the sleazy bars to the outrageously garish costuming, from the copious drunkenness to the facepaint and the silly bathing suits, this is a bright, brash, vibrant production that really, really goes out of its way to emphasise how much of a knees-up this all is. Tim McMullan and Daniel Rigby are standouts as the comic double-act Toby Belch and Andrew Aguecheek - great roles with which to gift an actor, but they seize them with aplomb, Rigby's clueless Aguecheek the perfect foil for McMullan's dashing, handsome but mostly drunken Belch. "Look at how much fun we're having!" the actors seem to be screaming for much of the time. Infectious? You bet. Elsewhere, Olivia's veil becomes a large pair of shades. The Elephant - the pub at which Antonio and Sebastian plan to meet - becomes a high camp nightclub in which a drag queen sings Hamlet's To Be Or Not To Be soliloquy, a moment so deeply, hilariously overdone that I can only applaud its sheer brazenness. Scholars might frown, but Shakespeare would no doubt have approved the degree to which it had people rolling in the aisles.

Not every modernizing move quite works - the hospital scene in which Viola asks "what country, friends, is this?" is a bit less successful. But for the most part Simon Godwin and his set designers work marvels on the stage, with one of the more impressive revolving sets I can recall. Beginning as the prow of a ship in the storm which tears Viola and her twin Sebastian apart, it splits in two just as the twins are parted, folding outwards to reveal dimensions within and spinning round as required to provide yet new settings. The choreography is marvellous, too, with some great use made of steps and levels and bannisters, at times evoking the atmosphere of a glitzy descent down a flight of stairs in a ballroom. So far, so brilliantly raucous. 

Amid all this joyous, colourful paraphernalia there are a number of good performances - Phoebe Fox is terrifically funny as Olivia, a fun-loving take on the character that never convinced me for a second that her "mourning" her brother's death was anything other than a sham, while Tamara Lawrence is a good, if not great, Viola. But the standout is clearly Tamsin Greig as Malvolia. She perfectly marries the original conception of Malvolio as a Puritan who detests drink and merrymaking with that of a matronly headmistress, wearing a uniform almost Soviet-era in its greyness and Spartan simplicity. Greig plays Malvolia's coming out of the closet as melodramatically as one might expect, leaving the supercilious tuts at the antics of "men" behind in the particularly joyous scene where she finds the letter from "Olivia" by the fountain; it's clearly a star vehicle and as such Greig plays to the audience, treating us as her confidantes. It is this more sympathetic take on the character which makes the mockery with which she is treated and abused, and her poisonous parting line "I'll be revenged upon the whole pack of you", even more sobering than usual. Twelfth Night does end on a more dour note than some of the other comedies, with a kind of acceptance that laughter and tears coexist indeed.

But what makes Godwin's Twelfth Night standout is the way he shapes the play in terms of its musings on gender identity. Cross-dressing in Shakespeare is not just nothing new, but has been part of the deal since the very beginning, in both the texts themselves and in the fact that men played women on the stage. Many, many directors before Godwin have flipped the genders of Shakespeare's characters, from Prospera to Queen Cymbeline. But for my money this is one of the more successful attempts, predominantly because its justifications are so strong - not that I necessarily believe one's justifications have to be particularly strong for this sort of thing, but what Godwin does with Malvolia, with Feste, is so beautifully mingled and interwoven with the play's thematic concerns that it helped me revise my views on Twelfth Night as a play.

What has been emphasised here is fluidity. Water motifs are everywhere - from the water of the ocean that brings about the shipwreck with which the play opens, to the fountain by which Malvolia discovers the note from "Olivia" and in which she splashes joyously to celebrate, to the swimming pool into which Olivia tries to lure "Cesario" with a pair of tiny swimming trunks, and eventually to the pièce de résistance, long my favourite thing about this play, Feste's delightful song "Hey ho, the wind and the rain", with that gorgeously evocative line "the rain it raineth every day". So far, so leitmotif. But when this is coupled with ideas about the fluidity of gender identity, with how Duke Orsino addresses Cesario/Viola as "boy" when he is in love with her, then tries to correct himself and realises it doesn't matter, because he loves her as a person rather than as a woman; with Tamsin Greig's prim, proper housewife take on Malvolia seguing into full-on lesbian diva as she realises her true love for her mistress; with Doon Mackichlan's cross-dressing Feste and Fabian becoming Fabia; with the aforementioned drag queen in the gay club (which Antonio, somewhat cheekily, recommends to his master Sebastian mostly because he is clearly deeply in love with him)... then it's like Shakespeare as adapted by Russell T Davies or Joe Orton: a queerer take on Twelfth Night I cannot imagine. And it's fabulous.


  1. ...then it's like Shakespeare as adapted by Russell T Davies...

    Speaking of which, have you seen Russell's Midsummer Night's Dream? I keep meaning to pick up the DVD.

    1. Yes, I did (whenever it was - last May some time I think). Very enjoyable indeed, magical and camp and full of whimsy. I didn't know there was a DVD of it out; might have to seek it out myself as I would gladly see it again.

      Matt Lucas is excellent as Bottom in it.