A woman standing next to the words 'National Theatre At Home'

April 24, 2020, by Peter Kirwan

Twelfth Night (National Theatre) @ National Theatre At Home

The choice of the National Theatre to broadcast Simon Godwin’s Twelfth Night to homes to mark Shakespeare’s deathday on 23 April was a canny one; a crowd-pleasing comedy, with known quantities (Oliver Chris as Orsino and the headlining Tamsin Greig as a regendered Malvolia, the actors reunited from Green Wing) and an elaborate set courtesy of Soutra Gilmour. On a personal level, having left the original NT Live screening at the interval owing to illness, I was pleased to have a chance to see this production again in an event setting. But for all the production’s glossiness, it seemed to me to lack an underpinning coherent that would make sense of its spectacle.

I need to acknowledge that I’m influenced by Sophie Duncan’s outstanding review, which I read in place of getting to see the production, and which is spot-on about the inadvertent homophobia of the production. What I find surprising about playing Malvolio as a woman was how much the choice ‘straightens out’ the play. Greig plays Malvolia as a Mrs Danvers type (seen during the night-time party scene comically/sinisterly hovering over the sleeping Olivia (Phoebe Fox) while ‘Sailing By’ plays) with sharp fringe and entirely black outfit, severe and curling her lips every time men (especially prospective suitors) are mentioned. Malvolia is explicitly gay, as the adaptation of her citation of ‘example for’t’ to speak of a past love between two women makes clear, and the first half of the production actually works quite well as Malvolia’s repressed desire is made clear and then allowed to erupt, Malvolia dancing joyously in a fountain as she embraces the possibility of acting on her love.

But while two other traditionally male characters, Feste and Fabian, are also played as women, Malvolia is the only one who impacts on the central love relationships. The choice makes emphatically clear that the frisson of same-sex desire in the play is only that, a frisson – and when confronted with gayness, the production makes clear that the only thing to do is turn away from it. The yellow stockings scene is disastrous, with Malvolia dressing up in a Pierrot the Clown costume before stripping and high-kicking down the stairs while singing a cabaret number. The spectacle feels entirely gratuitous (as do the repeated instances of making Malvolia get soaked while wearing a white shirt) as it connects to nothing else in Malvolia’s presentation of herself, and turning Malvolia into a clown sidesteps the opportunity either for a more serious treatment of the misogynist homophobia directed at her (especially in the ugly but unremarked moments of Daniel Rigby’s Sir Andrew desiring to punch her for expressing her desire for a woman) or for a more sincere treatment of her love. Instead, the production goes directly to jail without passing Go, switching to abused Malvolia sitting alone in prison and then later approaching Olivia in quiet indignation. The final sequence, as Malvolia climbs the steps of the set in her underwear, into the rain, while the rest of the company assemble underneath with umbrellas like they’re witnessing Judas’s death in Jesus Christ, Superstar, is so on the nose that it hurts, but the production’s interest in what’s actually going on with Malvolia has been so intermittent that there’s no strong sense of what, exactly, her tragedy is.

And this is coupled with ‘no homo’ moments as Chris’s Orsino expresses his relief that Cesario (Tamara Lawrence) is a woman, and the especially unusual decision to briefly show Viola in her bridal dress at the production’s end, straightening out even the text’s own queer subjunctivity of ‘if’ and ‘when’ as Orsino defers accepting Viola as a woman until he sees her in her woman’s weeds. There is a lovely moment at the production’s end as Orsino mistakes Sebastian (Daniel Ezra) for Viola and goes as far as kissing him while everyone else turns away, but the production is careful to make sure everyone is carefully and visibly paired up in heterosexual couples before Malvolia’s final walk of shame up the stairs. It’s clear that the production feels sympathy for Malvolia, and Greig is devastating (especially captured in close-up in Robin Lough’s screen direction) in her brokenness as she realises the extent to which she is shut out. But the production seems to be asking us to feel sad about a gay woman being left out in the cold, while itself staging and constructing that exclusion by characters who aren’t critiqued for doing so.

There’s a lot else going on in a production which is almost deliriously inventive in its creation of settings. The action is structured around an enormous pyramid that is impressive to look at, but which desperately slows down the action. Partly, this is a problem for seeing the production on screen, as the cameras seem to struggle to find good angles for capturing the overall effect of the vertiginous staging (especially when actors are on top of the pyramid) without making the stage seem empty. But it’s also an enormous lumbering edifice that leads to laborious scene changes and reduces scenes to a crawl, especially the party, as the pyramid is made to complete a full rotation to show Malvolia hearing the noise, leaving us looking at nothing for seemingly ages as we wait for the pyramid to complete its turn. The showy spectacle also includes a full-size car and moped for Orsino’s entourage in the opening scene, presumably brought on stage to show that the National Theatre can do this; but, as with Malvolia’s cabaret and a random drag act at ‘The Elephant’ (singing ‘To be or not to be’), it’s spectacle for its own sake.

Nonetheless, the staging of 1.1 at Olivia’s door is a nice touch. Chris is perfectly cast as man-child Orsino, winsome in his exuberance and insistence on grand gestures (turning up at Olivia’s door with a teddy bear and flowers) and in his celebration of his own youth (a full kids’ party with hats and cake to celebrate his fortieth is a great indication of his character), but absolutely narcissistic; the line at which he dismisses the idea that women could feel as strongly as he does is delivered beautifully. Orsino’s belligerence carries with it its own danger, as made clear in his angry turn in the final scene, but the production clearly feels that his un-self-conscious charm carries him through. He’s well matched with an unusually young Olivia, remarkable for her vivacity and joy. From a very early stage, she is running rings around Viola, even during their first meeting as she carelessly betrays her interest and struggles to cover it. In their next meeting, she is in full bathing suit to meet Viola and drags her into her private tub. The shame of this is that it means that both Orsino and Olivia’s antics end up overshadowing Viola and Sebastian, who feel even more like passive parts in the play than they usually do (albeit Lawrance sells Viola’s lust for Orsino brilliantly throughout with longing and enthusiasm, especially a full-blown fit of celebration after Orsino plants a kiss on her lips to pass on to Olivia).

Viola is first discovered in a hospital bed, a nice acknowledgement that the shipwreck might have been traumatic, and the presence of the excellent James Wallace as the Captain gives the scene a gravity that isn’t really followed up in the production, but which sets up the stakes of entering Illyria properly, as well as Viola’s exuberance as she jumps out of bed. She also presents herself as a singer to Olivia, strumming on an acoustic guitar. 2.1 is moved earlier so that Antonio (Adam Best) and Sebastian are introduced before Olivia; Ezra is a confident Sebastian who gives Sir Toby and Sir Andrew short shrift as he beats them up when they challenge him later. The setting for the church where Olivia and Sebastian marry, too, is nicely presented, a moment of simplicity which gives Sebastian a great setting to reflect on what has just happened to him.

In the subplot, there’s plenty of good work. Tim McMullan is a classic Sir Toby, eloquent yet slurring, and stumbling around in a constant drunken haze, with occasional flashes of anger. Rigby’s Andrew, all done up in pink suit, is hapless without being undignified, completely unaware of the implications of what he’s saying (there’s a lovely pause after ‘I was adored once’ for awkwardness). And Nicky Wardley’s Maria is all London briskness and wit as she shepherds them around. These scenes feel efficient rather than inventive, but I liked the extent to which Maria is seen working hard to shut down the Skepta-soundtracked midnight party led by Doon Mackichan’s Feste, making clear throughout that she is the only one anxious about the implications of the party.

What’s most effective about the comic characters is the casual ad-libbing. While (as Duncan rightly points out in her review) there’s a huge amount of throwing away of dialogue, the production has a cast a great group of comedians who deliver perfectly timed side-eyes at the audience when they hear laughter, and McMullan is especially amusing as he rambles on in his drunkenness. Unsurprisingly, this is where Greig comes into her own. Her confrontation with Viola after the latter’s first interview with Olivia is brilliant, as she throws down the ring and then repeatedly points to it, and then leaves while repeatedly glaring at the sax player who is playing her off. Her one-woman show during the letter-reading scene is a stand-out, Greig roaring at the letter as she tries to make it mean, and then delivering her soliloquy to the audience as if we are the ones refusing to believe her. Staging this as a high-energy defence of her own position shows just how far in Malvolia already is to her own delusion, but also gives the scene a great amount of humour. The on-stage fountain – which eventually explodes as she declares her love in a surprisingly phallic ejaculation for a projected lesbian relationship – is a step too far, especially as Greig looks awkward dancing in it while holding onto it to make sure it doesn’t fall over, but much better is the shared moment of metatheatrical joy as Greig points the fountain out to the audience to show how even it believes in her.

Disappointingly, despite the fact that I’d missed the second half when I first saw the production, there is relatively little to distinguish it, the most important moment being Malvolia tearing off her wig on her final exit to reveal cropped blonde hair. But again, I feel the wig is being made to do the work of character here. Despite Greig’s stand-out performance, and solid work across the ensemble, it’s a production which is too problematic to be fully funny, and too silly to consolidate its more serious points. It’s pretty, but doesn’t follow through – and in this sense, it’s its own Orsino.

Posted in Theatre review