Twelfth Night, National Theatre via NT Live
It’s perhaps appropriate that this staging of Twelfth Night begins by showing us the storm (featuring an extract of the shipping forecast in addition to the usual storm sound effects, a nice touch) which separates Sebastian and Viola, as its casting has created something of a storm in a tea cup. This production is what’s described as ‘gender fluid’ – several formerly male characters, most notably Malvolio, who is transmogrified into Malvolia (Tamsin Grieg). So far, so quite interesting but hardly shocking. Except it seems to have been the final straw for The Telegraph’s theatre critic, who wrote a piece worrying that the male lead was being killed off, and telling women to get their sticky mitts off male parts. I paraphrase, but only slightly.
I say: what a load of rubbish. The male lead is alive and well, as a quick glance at the RSC’s recent leaflet promoting their Roman season will tell you – the only woman on there is playing Cleopatra. I don’t particularly have a problem with that (well, maybe a small one), but equally, I can’t see why anyone (even if they do work for The Telegraph) could have a problem with a little gender-bending, especially in Twelfth Night, which is all about gender disguise and confusion. The only real question to be considered, is whether the production is any good – and this one is brilliant.
Tamsin Greig is a fine actress with a great gift for comedy, and her comic scenes are hugely funny – but she always captures the character’s melancholy and pain too. The closing image of her, alone after the rest of the principal cast have paired off to be happy is haunting. Why did Shakespeare create such a sad end for a character in what is meant to be a comedy? His/her presence at the end of the play feels almost like that of Banquo at Macbeth’s feast. Perhaps his point is to do with the heedlessness and selfishness of love. Perhaps the glover’s son is making a class point, since the other character left alone at the end of the play is Antonio, the seaman who saves – and loves – Sebastian. Either way, if we’d stuck to conventional casting we’d never have missed out on this performance.
The rest of the cast is just as good. Oliver Chris’ Orsino is a simple soul –perhaps not quite Tim Nice But Dim, but edging in that direction – whose howl of relief at realising the person he has fallen in love with is not a boy but a girl in disguise is one of the play’s funniest moments. Phoebe Fox is a strong-minded Olivia, giving herself up to melancholy, but discovering passion can still burst through, while Tamara Lawrance is a lively Viola, with a particularly nice line in astonished expressions – she’s one to watch. Tim McMullen and Daniel Rigby (I wonder if that’s really all his own hair…) are a fine comic pair as Sir Toby and Sir Andrew, and Imogen Doel makes a good impression in the small role of Fabia (another gender-switched role).
The cast are great, but the set deserves a mention too – it’s a huge pyramidal structure, which revolves to reveal different spaces, meaning we rarely see the same thing twice. The gay bar with a drag queen performing Hamlet’s soliloquy as a torch song was a particularly nice touch.
This production is directed by Simon Godwin, who was also at the helm for the RSC’s recent production of Hamlet with Paapa Essiedu (which I also loved, despite my ambivalence towards Hamlet) – he seems to have a deft touch with Shakespeare, an ability to bring out the themes of the plays in a way that makes them seem fresh. I suspect I don’t always give directors the credit they deserve, so I’ll end by saying: keep up the good work Simon. And ignore any rantings from Telegraph journalists.
Twelfth Night, National Theatre until 13th May