Having spent the past five weeks in Palm Beach, where I stayed four doors away from Mar-a-Lago, the winter palace of the current Lord of Misrule, I came late to the Twelfth Night party at the National Theatre, which opened last month. We often forget that Twelfth Night or What You Will was offered as a traditional entertainment for the end of the Christmas season. Shakespeare, of course, subverted the pattern, which featured role-changing: masters serving their servants, husbands swapping duties with their wives, boy bishops, and children cheeking their parents – and made something completely new of this, not a masque, but a stand-alone play.
It’s perhaps, then, not very strange that Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night is so malleable. Though summaries of the play usually identify the chief plot as the romantic entanglements of Olivia, Orsino, Viola and Sebastian, the plot thread of Malvolio, aspiring above his station to the love of his employer, Olivia, can easily be made to dominate the drama. As we learn from Peter Holland’s programme essay for the current NT production, some of the first audiences for the play in 1601 thought Malvolio was its star. Indeed, in his personal copy of the Second Folio, King Charles I wrote “Malvolio” next to the play’s title.
So the director, Simon Godwin, is doing nothing radical by pimping Malvolio’s place in the play. What is novel is that he’s cast a woman, the superb actor, Tamsin Greig, renamed the character “Malvolia,” and that his production embraces the lesbian consequences of this gender-bending. With Greig in the role, it is almost inevitable that Malvolia will tower over the proceedings and overshadow the lovers’ plot-line. Whenever she’s present in Soutra Gilmour’s wonderfully flexible sets, Greig owns the stage. In this contemporary-dress production, her Puritan Malvolia sports a severe black bob, and is dressed in culottes. Though clad in Puritan black, she’s a thoroughly modern Malvolia, PA to an Olivia (the splendid Phoebe Fox) who makes up for her diminutive stature by wearing chunky platform heels. Greig’s every hand gesture or movement of a finger holds the audience’s attention – she’s just too big a personality to play second fiddle to the lovers, even if one of them is her boss.
So, unlike the recent vogue for women playing roles Shakespeare wrote for men – Glenda Jackson as Lear and Harriet Walter as Brutus, Henry IV, and Prospero – this casting alters the matter of the play. For here Malvolia has a lesbian passion for Olivia, and Godwin follows through, by making Feste female (Doon Mackichan), as well as the entire household of Olivia.
Does it work? Almost. The problem is that the pace is 21st century-frantic, and much of the poetry is dissipated. This is particularly true of Tamara Lawrence’s Viola, whose delivery is rushed, though she is in most other respects a delight to watch. Similarly, Feste’s lines and songs need to be slowed down, so we can savour them. The gay sub-plot of Antonio’s pash on Sebastian is, paradoxically, thrown away, in a production that might well have celebrated it. Oliver Chris’ Orsino is squandered – he’s very good, especially in the gym sequence where he spars with Viola, but the rest of his performance is a (director’s fault) speedy blur. On the other hand, Tim McMullan’s Toby Belch and Daniel Rigby’s Andrew Aguecheek have been lovingly directed (and costumed) and the latent homoerotic content of their relationship is exploited fully and comically.
There are wonderful touches to this production. Besides the marvellous revolving sets, the fountain, plunge pool and rain for Feste’s final song, the live music is a joy, and the added scene in a night club, where a drag queen sings Hamlet’s soliloquy, is superb. Greig the comedienne is even better as Greig the tragedienne, humiliated and shattered. What is the significance of the final scene, in which she climbs the pyramidal set and gestures towards the light and source of the rain shower? Perhaps Godwin intends it to be a mystery. A perpetual problem for the director and actor who plays Malvolio is whether he’s a villain – does Shakespeare means us to have a shred of sympathy for the hypocritical Puritan, or are we meant to delight in his degradation? When the role is enacted well, even by an actor less magnificent than Greig, it’s impossible not to have at least some sneaking sympathy for this largely repulsive religious fanatic.
No one would claim that this fashionably gender-fluid NT production is a definitive reading of Twelfth Night, but it’s definitely one that refreshes both the audience and the text.