Digital theatre review: Twelfth Night (National Theatre)
Ivan Radford | On 25, Apr 2020
“If music be the food of love, play on.” Those are the familiar words that begin the National Theatre’s 2017 production of Twelfth Night, but this is far from your typical Shakespeare adaptation – it plays on, then turns the music up to 11.
The central hook is an irresistible one: the play swaps out Malvolio for Malvolia, with Tamsin Greig bringing a fresh new side to the role of Olivia’s uptight housekeeper. Olivia (Phoebe), meanwhile, is the subject of overtures from Orsino (Oliver Chris), the duke of a nearby household who is madly in love with her. But when a shipwreck separates twins Viola and Sebastian – and Viola (Tamara Lawrance) disguises herself as a man to get work with Orsino, only to find herself catching Olivia’s eye – the stage is set for a criss-crossing tale of desire and gender.
Greig’s casting, then, is par for the course for a deceptively forward-thinking comedy, which shrugs at sexual identity with a playful wink. Simon Godwin’s production leans into it with glorious gumption, casting Doon Mackichan as Feste, the traditionally male fool, and turning the local town inn into a gay bar – complete with a drag queen singing a version of the “To be or not to be” soliloquy from Hamlet. These are things that, on paper, should be tonally mismatched madness, but on the stage, find an unexpected harmony through the show’s sheer vibrant energy. It does things with Shakespeare that you never thought possible, blowing any potentially stuffy cobwebs of convention into the neon rafters.
Soutra Gilmour’s set chimes in with the sense of fluid, shifting personas, condensing all the locations into one revolving pyramid – two staircases that open wide to expose a hospital, a hot tub, a garden and a swimming pool in turn. The supporting cast strut up and down the steps in between acts, with a raucous saxophone serenading anyone who happens to pass by – and, more often than not, pause to have a dance.
The ensemble are universally up for it, from Phoebe Fox’s secretly excitable Olivia (hilarious) to Oliver Chris’ playboyish Orsino (enjoyably smarmy) to Tim McMullan and Daniel Rigby as the dapper and dimwitted Sir Toby and Andrew Aguecheek. Backed by pitch-perfect costumes (Andrew’s clashing shades of pink are a treat), they throw themselves into the physical comedy of it all – the scene where they overhear Malvolia reading a fake love letter from Olivia is the funniest you’ll ever see it done.
At the centre of it all, of course, is Tamsin Greig, who brings the house down with a single glance as she swans about the stage with stern stares. Her closeted passion – and unbuttoned sense of hitherto unspoken hope – is as thrilling as it is hysterical, as she makes the fountains spurt in time with her rising emotions. Her transformation into a yellow, cross-gartered fool, meanwhile, is gob-smacking to behold, as she fully embraces the notion of someone whose desires, sense of self and heart is broken into pieces and cast to the wind.
This is a breathless, naughty, stylish achievement, one that won’t win points for subtlety, but when not being subtle is this much fun, who cares? What an absolute riot.
Twelfth Night is not currently available on VOD.