Twelfth Night, National Theatre | reviews, news & interviews
Twelfth Night, National Theatre
Twelfth Night, National Theatre
Tamsin Greig leads a superb cast in this giddy take on Shakespeare's classic comedy
Everybody’s a little bit gay in Simon Godwin’s giddy new Twelfth Night at the National Theatre. From Andrew Aguecheek, vibrant in candy-coloured check, cuddling up to Sir Toby, and Antonio’s aggressive affection to Sebastian, to Orsino’s passionate snog with the wrong sibling after the big reveal and the lustful looks from Tamsin Greig's repressed Malvolia towards the lovely Olivia (who still can’t keep her eyes off Viola), all’s queer in love and war, it seems. The effect? A stylish sexual free-for-all, with plenty of laughs and just the occasional jarring note.
Because while Godwin is busy amping up Shakespeare’s girls-who-like-girls-dressed-as-boys comedy, not so much bending genders as snapping bits clean off, he’s also flirting with some dangerous stereotypes.
This is a production that’s all about cast
Daniel Rigby’s puppy-eyed, man-bun-sporting Sir Andrew (pictured below with Tim McMullan's Sir Toby) is a sympathetic misfit rather than an outright boor, eager to please his beloved Sir Toby (so long as he can sport his cerise knee-highs). A gay man in a straight crowd, his manipulation becomes a much crueller undertaking than simple idiocy led astray. It’s a situation mirrored in Tamsin Greig’s Malvolio-turned-Malvolia, whose Louise Brooks bob is the straightest thing about her, and whose sensible shoes and culottes combo fulfil every expectation of a predatory lesbian – even if Greig’s own essential warmth and vulnerability do much to undercut it.Fundamentally, though, Godwin’s vision is benign, siphoning off most of the play’s darker elements and leaving neat sunshine, song and laughter. The National’s toybox has been all but emptied out for a show that throws cars, motorbikes, swimming pools, fountains, and an intricate unfolding set onto the revolving stage. Soutra Gilmour’s designs – all glass and glitz – scream expense, framing this trippy fairytale in a world that staggers freely between the decades, now colliding with the 1920s, now with the Noughties, with a brief sit-down somewhere around the 1960s.
But ultimately this is a production that’s all about cast. Signalling comedy from the get-go is Oliver Chris’s deliciously rueful Orsino – a perpetually friend-zoned lover who’s sure no woman could resist a sports car and a supermarket bunch of flowers. But if his is comparatively quiet character comedy, Tamsin Grieg’s is amped up to full volume, holding the stage for a letter scene whose surreal clowning recalls her early Green Wing turn, later donning a sexy Pierrot outfit (complete with revolving nipple-windmills) for a 1920s-style cabaret act. If all this comedy inevitably outweighs the cruelty, it’s a redistribution of dramatic weight that works well enough.Tim McMullan is predictably glorious as Sir Toby – an ageing roué with a cruel streak and some slinky dance moves – playing off Rigby’s skilled Sir Andrew and Imogen Doel as perky co-conspirator Fabia. Even Phoebe Fox’s Olivia (pictured above) gets in on the comic action, part Alice and part crazed Red Queen in this particular Wonderland – prim in public, but barely contained in private. The only character not having much fun is the Fool. Godwin’s vision for Doon Mackichan’s Feste is unclear, giving her some good songs but little else.
With so much comedy swirling around them, Tamara Lawrence’s Viola and Daniel Ezra’s Sebastian provide much-needed dramatic anchors, understated representatives of normality in this swift-spinning fantasy world. The rotations inevitably slow by the end, as Godwin’s tightly-wound comedy begins to lose its grip, but the energy persists. This won’t be everyone’s Twelfth Night, it’s certainly not Shakespeare’s, but with everyone having so much fun it hardly seems to matter.
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