Theatre Review: Twelfth Night // National Theatre

NT Live’s Twelfth Night provides the perfect entertainment for Shakespeare’s 456th birthday in lockdown. Most notable for having the first female Malvolio in theatre history, Simon Godwin’s production is a farcical treat with a bittersweet ending.

Music really is the food of love in this contemporary adaptation. Godwin’s choice of onstage musicians really draws attention to the music. In particular, Hannah Lawrence – who masterfully switches between the clarinet, flute, and saxophone, each of which she plays gloriously – heightens the atmosphere by a mile. This, in turn, enhances the air of mystery in the piece, in which false identities and gender play underpin the action.

Photo Credit: Soutra Gilmour // Marc Brenner.

Soutra Gilmour’s design is not only visually striking but incredibly clever. A giant revolving pyramid allows for extravagant sets to appear in the blink of an eye (or a turn of the stage). One moment we’re in a glitzy drag bar, the next a decadent pool house complete with a fully-tiled jacuzzi. Combined with James Farcombe’s neon-hued lighting, it creates an apt feel of timeless modernity. A rave scene is perfectly facilitated by the central structure; on one side a circus of drinking and merriment (accompanied by an amusing rendition of Boy Better Know’s ‘Too Many Man’), on the other a sleeping Olivia, disturbed by distant shrieks and the muffled thumping of electronica.

Photo Credit: National Theatre // Marc Brenner.

Godwin’s direction is full to the brim with genius moments – some in-your-face, some microscopic. Creative reinterpretations of Shakespeare’s language bring in even more comedy to contemporary audiences; Malvolia’s yellow stockings reveal becomes a sung-through striptease. Tamara Lawrance commands the stage as Viola, and her comic timing is spot on. The sexual tension between her and Orsino (Oliver Chris) is palpable, whilst Chris succeeds in acting suitably befuddled by his attraction to ‘Cesario’. Other noteworthy performances are from Phoebe Fox as the coquettish yet noble Olivia, as well as Tim McMullan as Sir Toby Belch and Daniel Rigby as Sir Andrew Aguecheek, whose unequal relationship makes for a hilarious double act.

Photo Credit: Muddy Stilettos // Marc Brenner.

Of course, Tamsin Greig is the real talking point of this production. Malvolia has us falling off our seats from her elated reaction to the forged love letter. She leaps gleefully into a water fountain, brilliantly capturing that all-too-relatable feeling of exhilaration when you think someone fancies you back. Then, as we reach a stark shift of mood in the play, a practical joke gone too far fills us with sympathy for her. Greig showcases her extensive range as she artfully shifts from a pursed-lipped puritan, to a maniacal romantic, to the weeping victim of a malicious prank. When Olivia tells her that she didn’t write the letter, the gender swap becomes all the more impactful. Male Malvolio is often read as power-hungry, whose desire to marry countess Olivia is rooted in status rather than affection. In this context, however, Malvolia is a closeted homosexual, whose secret (and unrequited) love for her mistress leaves her humiliated.

Photo Credit: Muddy Stilettos // Marc Brenner.

In a melancholic ending, the revolving pyramid is used to great effect to give glimpses of each character: Orsino and Viola’s wedding; a blossoming romance between Sir Toby and Maria; Sir Andrew with his bags packed; an ambiguously poignant moment between Olivia and Sebastian – is she happy with this marriage to which she committed under false pretences? We will never know. Finally, to a clap of thunder, we find Malvolia sitting somberly on the steps. She drags herself up and ascends to the brassy swell of the sax. The rain pours. A throng of umbrellas forms. It’s pathetic fallacy at its finest (thank you GCSE English), it may be clichéd but it’s executed so well that it just works.

Photo Credit: Soutra Gilmour // Marc Brenner.

Altogether, this was a virtually faultless production from a stellar cast and creative team. Dynamic, innovative, and witty, you would be “no better in your wits than a fool” not to watch it. Luckily, it is now available in the National Theatre Collection via DramaOnline. Play on. 

Words by Franky Lynn.

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