In the National Theatre’s current production of Twelfth Night, showing until the 13th of May, Tamsin Greig takes to the stage as Malvolia: an act of gender inversion unusual even to a play in which the plot revolves around gender misidentification. This may be the most eye-catching aspect of this production, and indeed has been the bedrock of the advertising campaign for the show, but it is by no means the play’s only notable quality. Under the direction of Simon Godwin, this cast creates a brilliantly funny spectacle and also brings to life certain aspects of Twelfth Night which are not often fully explored.
As is fashionable, this is a modernised production of Shakespeare. The action in Illyria starts much more immediately than usual, as instead of the Count Orsino (Oliver Chris) telling his courtiers “If music be the food of love, play on” whilst self-indulgently lounging in his own residence, he instead drives up to Olivia’s (Phoebe Fox) door in a vintage car and delivers this line as an instruction for his entourage to continue playing a serenade. This gives Orsino the feel of a nineties teenager with a stereo held over his head, and is an intelligent way to demonstrate early on how vain and superficial his feelings in fact are. Viola/Cesario (Tamara Lawrence) then wakes up not on the shore, but in a hospital bed before rushing off to seek employment with Orsino, and later the scene in which Feste sings for the Count is transposed to take place within a debauched dinner party honouring Orsino’s fortieth birthday: a reminder for the audience that time is eroding his status as an eligible bachelor. The modernisations in this production are not thrown in for the sake of it: they are thought through, make sense, and add new angles on the play.
All the quick scene changes that make these features of the play possible are enabled by an absolutely wonderful set. It is genuinely hard to describe with words, but what appears on the stage is essentially two large triangular walls sloping down from a central pole that rises about six metres into the air. The walls contain many different compartments which are revealed as the National’s Olivier stage revolves; this is particularly impressive when the audience is able to watch characters walk to the door inside, and then follow them outside as the revolution of the stage keeps us at pace with the action. It’s not an understatement to say that it would be worth seeing this production for the stage design alone.
But the performances enabled by this staging are also brilliant. Tamsin Greig is fully deserving of all the plaudits she will undoubtedly receive: she manages to make the puritanical Malvolia a comic presence well before appearing ridiculously dressed before Olivia. She regularly breaks the fourth wall, signaling out individual audience members for disdain in her attempt to rise above the foolery she so detests in the world (and by which she is so cruelly tricked through Maria’s plot); this even extended to a mid-speech “bless you” delivered to an audience member who sneezed an inopportune moment. When she does eventually appear before her lady dressed in yellow and cross-gartered, the scene is side-splittingly funny and the costume design so unique I am not going to spoil it with a description here.
Greig is aided in making this production truly hilarious by the cast playing those who gull Malvolia. Niky Wardley (Maria), Daniel Rigby (Sir Andrew Aguecheek), and Tim McMullan (Sir Toby Belch) take to the stage with great chemistry and continue to fuel the comedy of the play throughout – Daniel Rigby’s dancing has to be seen to be believed. Feste (Doon Mackichan), Olivia’s “allowed fool”, stands the most outside the comedy of the play and in fact often casts a more somber air over the proceedings. Many of the fool’s language manipulating lines have been cut, which is a shame because they contain some of Shakespeare’s finest writing, but this decision is justified by the way in which Godwin’s direction utilises the character.
Like Malvolia, Feste’s gender is also inverted. This rather neatly ensures that the entirety of Olivia’s court is comprised of women, but it also enables Feste and Malvolia to stand as counterpoints to each other: the two women tragically left with no resolution at the play’s climax. Obviously this lack of resolution is equally present when the characters are played by men, but Godwin’s direction makes an explicit point of uniting these characters in their loneliness at the play’s end. Were the two characters to be of different genders this would feel too much like Twelfth Night’s other heteronormative unions and lessen its impact. The two figures hold hands in isolation after Feste’s final song: a gesture that seems to imply an empathy for each other, but which leaves the possibility of these two characters engaging in a romantic entanglement different from the rest of the play (let us not forget that Malvolia has spent the entirety of the play romantically pursuing Olivia). This moment is poignant, and also highlights this production’s deft treatment of the homosexual undertones of Twelfth Night.
The homo-eroticism of Shakespeare’s play is uniquely well handled by Godwin’s direction. Unlike most productions, it is neither heavy-handed, nor purely focused on nods and winks every time Antonio (Adam Best) professes to “love” Sebastian (Daniel Ezra). In the final scene, in which Cesario’s true identity is revealed, there is a palpable feeling that Orsino’s relief that the person with whom he has fallen in love is actually a woman is distinctly overplayed. It feels as if the Count wishes to be seen by the public to be relieved that he hasn’t fallen for a man, but his actions – notably kissing Sebastian passionately instead of Viola – imply that his real desires might not be so heterosexual.
Orsino appears to have fallen in love with the image of his manservant, not the real person underneath the disguise. Olivia, however, seems far from happy when realising she has married someone merely of Cesario’s visage: she fell in love with the person, and it feels like Viola would be the character she would still choose as her lover at this point. The ending of the play usually implies the reverse of this: that Olivia is delighted to be partnered with the image she has coveted, and Orsino has fallen in love with someone who conveniently is revealed to be female; Godwin’s inversion of this dynamic appears actually to be a more apt reading of both the play and the characters within it. With this context, the image at the end of the two outcast female figures holding hands and looking to the future gives a truly unique ending to a play that has been performed for over four hundred years.