Twelfth Night at the National Theatre
The National Theatre certainly knows how to put a cast together. In its extravagant production of Twelfth Night almost every major British sitcom from the last two decades, including Green Wing, The Office, Peep Show, The Day Today and Black Books, is represented on stage. This is the theatre flying its comedic flag high, Shakespeare’s play taking on a heightened, campy tone.
Interestingly, however, this potential for frivolity is married to an acute awareness of gender and sexuality. Director Simon Godwin teases out the fluidity integral to the play’s identity-switching, love-triangled plot and then doubles down on it, with every character seeming to exist not at the hetero or homo-poles of the sexual spectrum, but somewhere in the middle. The scenes between Viola and Olivia crackle with an ambiguous chemistry – the question of whether the latter knows the former is a woman in male dress is never answered, and nor does it need to be – while those between Sebastian and Antonio hum with a much more overt homoerotic tension.
That’s not to mention the shift in sentiment brought about by the casting of Tamsin Greig as Malvolia (not ‘o’). Greig steals a show that is admittedly skewed in her favour, with Malvolia’s scolding pomposity turning tragic once her capacity for love is revealed. This is because Godwin doesn’t shy away from the darkness of the ending: Olivia cannot be with Viola in part thanks to the triumph of heteronormative ideals, while the prank that is used to mock Malvolia takes on a cruel (maybe homophobic) edge given the gender-swapped nature of the character.
As is to be expected given the calibre of the cast there is plenty to admire beyond Greig’s unforgettable performance. Daniel Rigby’s naïve knight Aguecheek postures and preens like a man incredibly uncomfortable in his own skin, while Tim McCullen plays his companion Sir Toby as an ageing rocker staggering about the place causing mischief. Special mention must also go to Tamara Lawrance’s vibrant, cheeky Viola and Phoebe Fox’s alternatively silly and serious Olivia, with the sparky scenes they share together among the production’s best.
This version is far from perfect. Soutra Gilmour’s revolving, unfolding set is very pretty to look at, all art deco design and lavish garden-house openness; however, the sluggish transitions, even when accompanied by jazzy musical interludes, sap the whole thing of momentum. And the production’s silliness can get a bit grating as one urges on the final reveals. Nevertheless, this is a bold attempt to update the text, not through modish means but rather by peeling back to find layers already intrinsic to Shakespeare’s narrative.
Photo: Mark Brenner
Twelfth Night is on at the National Theatre from 22nd February to 13th May 2017, for further information or to book a visit here.