Friday 24 February 2017

Twelfth Night

National Theatre
22nd February 2017

Twelfth Night is my favourite of Shakespeare’s comedies. I love the carnivalesque theme, the romance, and the fact that, for an early 17th century comedy, it’s actually pretty funny (which is more than I can say for the so-called ‘comedies’ Measure for Measure or The Tempest – granted they have been reconsidered as a ‘problem’ play and a ‘romance’, respectively). Not to mention the fact that the subversive themes of gender transcendence and sexual fluidity were way ahead of its time. These themes are even more relevant today in a society preoccupied (rightly so) with gender identity and LGBQT rights, and it is encouraging that Simon Godwin places this front and centre of his new production. Not only do we have the genre-defining confusion regarding Viola/Cesario/Sebastian and the tangled web of love-hexagons, but also a female Malvolia – who harbours a secret crush on her mistress, Olivia – as well as a female Feste and Fabia(n), and the relocation of The Elephant to a drag club. Whilst adding extra thematic bite, this casting decision also offers up some great roles for women, an issue of increasing pertinence within the arts.

The modern dress interpretation has a distinct 60/70’s feel – perhaps to echo the free love sentiments – which is realised in Soutra Gilmour’s geometric design. The stage is dominated by a giant pyramid staircase which unfolds, booklike, into numerous interiors. The glassy facades create a prism effect, reflecting the double-crossing and dual identities at play. It’s a glorious and hugely satisfying design.

From the opening atmospheric storm-scene, we hurtle through Shakespeare’s play at laugh-a-minute speed, buoyed by a supporting cast of cartoonish characters. With her little bursts of lascivious abandonment, Phoebe Fox as the entitled Olivia is wonderfully coquettish in her advances towards Viola. I barely recognised a physically transformed Daniel Rigby, who turns in a performance of comic perfection as Olivia’s dim-witted would-be suitor, Sir Andrew Auguecheek. From the moment he steps on stage in his pink checked suit, matching stockings and faux hipster manbun he is the epitome of the grinning buffoon, strung along by rock ‘n’ roll boozer Sir Toby Belch (Tim McMullen plays a fine drunk). At the centre of all the madness, Tamara Lawrance’s Viola is the beating heart, grounding her spirited soul-pourings with an earthiness that is occasionally off-set with youthful glee. Yet, as all the promotional material implies, Tamsin Greig’s Malvolia is the undoubted star of the show. In her early appearances as a strict school-mistress type she leaves the audience reeling with a pointedly, perfectly timed arch of an eyebrow, while her vaudevillian striptease takes the ‘yellow cross-gartered stockings’ scene to a whole new level of invention, sexuality and hilarity.

As you can gather, Godwin’s production is far from subtle, playing up the farcical humour while being an overt expression of free sexuality – I adored the Antonio/Sebastian kiss (Adam Best and Daniel Ezra), it felt like years of productions worth of pent up sexual tension was finally delivered! – yet he also doesn’t stint on the poignancy. For all our glee at Malvolia’s misunderstandings, I have always felt uncomfortable with the gulling scene – are we really supposed to laugh at the degrading humiliation ‘thrust upon’ her, merely as a consequence for questioning her social superiors? – yet here it is suitably cold and harsh, not funny in the slightest. Therefore, when Malvolia swears revenge we can’t help but both pity her and kind of root for her – it helps, of course, that Greig is an extremely sympathetic actor. In a piece of dazzling theatricality Malvolia makes her exit through a deluge of rain, stripped bare of her pristine wig revealing a shock of bleached hair, a mirror of the earlier letter scene in which she triumphantly frolics in a garden fountain. Much has been made of water symbolism in Shakespeare – however, this water has the opposite of a cleansing or illuminating effect on Malvolia, as she has been cruelly duped and finally must face cold reality. The closing montage (a lovely use of the Olivier’s revolve) emphasises the sting in the tail of the happy-ever-after; Malvolia’s fate is touching and uncertain, and thus, the fate of the contented couples is similarly uncertain as Feste (Doon Mackichan) reminds us that the ‘rain it raineth every day’.

Godwin is gaining good pedigree regarding his Shakespeare productions (his Hamlet at the RSC last year was equally as impressive) and Twelfth Night might be the best production of The Bard’s work put on at the NT for some time. Funny, touching, bonkers and stylish without sacrificing substance, I knew it was a personal favourite for a reason. If I could see it again I would jump at the chance.

Twelfth Night plays at the National Theatre until 13th May as well as being broadcast as part of NT Live to cinemas nationwide on 6th April.
Doon Mackichan and Tamsin Greig. Photo: Marc Brenner.

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