Thursday, 23 February 2017

Theatre review: Twelfth Night (National Theatre)

For most plays, having seen another production within four years would seem very recent, but the most popular Shakespeares come along a lot more often than that, and avoiding Twelfth Night for three full calendar years feels like an achievement - and one I was keen to make, because however fresh a director's twist on the story, there's only so much you can do to overcome familiarity. Realistically it would take a lot longer to forget a play I know this well, but under the circumstances this is pretty good going, and at least I break my run with a production I was looking forward to: The big selling point of Simon Godwin's production for the National is that Tamsin Greig plays a gender-flipped Malvolio. Now called Malvolia, she's housekeeper to the wealthy Olivia (Phoebe Fox,) the last in her family and as a result in a declared state of permanent mourning, any romance officially ruled out.

This doesn't stop Malvolia from nursing a crush on her mistress, a weakness Olivia's uncle Sir Toby Belch (Tim McMullan) exploits when she humiliates him, and he hatches an elaborate revenge plan to trick her into thinking Olivia returns her love.

And this is only one of the subplots in one of the most ensemble-based of Shakespeare's comedies, and while Greig doesn't disappoint, Godwin has gone for similarly strong and innovative casting everywhere. I was particularly interested in another piece of gender-switching, as Greig pairs up again with her Jumpy co-star Doon Mackichan, who plays Feste. Always described as an unfunny clown, this makes for another clever bit of casting as Mackichan has always been good at getting comedy out of characters with at least some sense of desperation to them, and though this Feste is mostly just along for the ride when Sir Toby and Sir Andrew party, there's also an underlying sense of her trying too hard.

In what's technically the main plotline, Olivia's protestations of eternal chastity are tested when a suitor sends her a message and she falls for the messenger, not realising that "he's" actually Viola (Tamara Lawrance,) a woman in disguise. So the production's playing around with gender feels perfectly at home with what the play itself is doing in the first place, and only expands on it in a matter-of-fact way by explicitly making two characters gay - as well as the now-lesbian Malvolia, there's no coyness around the fact that Antonio (Adam Best) is attracted to Daniel Ezra's Sebastian - while other characters are fairly casually seen as being equally touchy-feely with both genders.

For anyone who's seen all-too-many Twelfth Nights, Godwin's production is encouraging right from the famous opening lines - I've lost count of how many times I've seen them played out with the cast lounging on scatter-cushions, but here Orsino's (Oliver Chris) "If music be the food of love" is a serenade outside Olivia's house, with him driving onto the stage in a classic sports car, and not a scatter-cushion in sight. Elsewhere, his not realising Viola is a woman leads to him casually punching her in the face while boxing, while the gulling of Malvolia ends with her joyfully jumping into a fountain, and the fight between Sebastian and Sir Andrew, usually staged somewhere generic outside the house, is relocated to an S&M club complete with a drag queen singing "To Be Or Not To Be."

Of course this being the Olivier the resources are there to come up with all these different locations but it's great to see them being used as genuinely inventive takes on the play rather than just to show off the budget. Soutra Gilmour's designs enable this beautifully: The centrepiece of her revolving set is a pair of huge staircases. In the opening image they evoke Titanic in a nod to the shipwreck that kickstarts the plot, but they unfurl like a spiral notebook to reveal a seemingly endless array of elaborate backgrounds for the action. And even the simplest elements are made good use of, with both Malvolia and Sir Andrew using the fact that the stage is moving out from under them to comic effect.

And these are the two standout comic performances in a production that's not short of them. Daniel Rigby's Sir Andrew is a predictably good source of physical comedy but also hones in on how much of his character's speech is made up of non-sequiturs. Greig's Malvolia is repressed rather than outright nasty, trotting around the stage like a pony when her facade breaks, and getting laughs out of tiny facial expressions of disapproval at the audience. Her humiliation is the only point where the production really explores the darker side of the play but that's no bad thing: All too often the clichés about Twelfth Night being "melancholy" "autumnal" and "dark" are used to excuse failing to make it funny. But like Fox's Olivia joyously casting off her mourning as soon as she falls in love, and pretty much dancing her way through the rest of the play, this is a version that foregrounds the giddy elements of the play, and with much success.

Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare is booking in repertory until the 13th of May at the National Theatre's Olivier.

Running time: 2 hours 55 minutes including interval.

Photo credit: Marc Brenner.

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