Writer: William Shakespeare
Director: Simon Godwin
On the anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth, the National Theatre cunningly schedules its bubbly 2017 version of Twelfth Night, the latest in its weekly At Home series of communal theatre experiences. Refocusing on the comedy characters, Simon Godwin’s flamboyant production draws out the silliest possible side of Shakespeare’s much-loved comedy with a show-stealing performance from Tamsin Greig as a gender-swapped Malvolia.
Twins Viola and Sebastian are separated by a shipwreck, landing in Illyria where Viola disguises herself as Cesario. She quickly becomes Count Orsino’s right-hand man as he attempts to woo Olivia. Olivia meanwhile falls for Cesario, while her relative Sir Toby Belch and his compatriots plot to embarrass her steward Malvolia. With hidden romance and plenty of disguises the arrival of Sebastian only adds to the confusion.
In the filming of this amusingly chaotic production, two clear stars emerge, the first of which is Soutra Gilmour’s outstanding pyramid set. With sets of stairs on which characters can lurk, pose and listen-in on conversations, this triangular construction opens out to create the various locations of the play including Olivia’s chic 30s-inspired home, Orsino’s 40th birthday party, a well-manicured garden and, surprisingly, a Drag bar.
Gilmour’s design suggests a community of wealthy eccentrics and their retainers using plenty of bold patterns and bright colours within the furnishings and costumes. They look particularly good on camera, capturing the scale and complexity of Gilmour’s work as well as the impact of crucial moments including Malvolia’s jaw-dropping yellow stocking outfit.
And of course, Grieg is the production’s other star with a joyous comic performance that really motors the show. Dominating all the action in the centre of the play, the garden scene in which Malvolia discovers what she supposes is an enticing letter from her Mistress is outstanding as Grieg builds wave after wave of hilarity, breaking down the staid and colourless steward to allow a freer-spirit to emerge.
The confrontational moment with Olivia has to be seen to be believed, a wonderful combination of visual and physical comedy that the rest of the production cannot match, while later in the show as the cruelty of the trick and Malvolia’s suffering is revealed, Grieg earns our sympathy with great skill, demonstrating that every high brings deeper lows, however undeserved.
Godwin’s vision is quite broad with lots of exuberant high jinks and big performances that often compete with one another. It is a convoluted story, yet the first Act in particular creates too little alignment between the various strands of the play and not enough clarity on how the subplots hang coherently together. With so much happening the camerawork occasionally misses humorous events on other parts of the stage, with only a smattering of audience laughter to indicate that something else has happened off-screen.
Tamara Lawrence is an earnest Viola and with the focus on Malvolia, the knotted love triangle is rather muted, but Lawrence has some wonderful moments as Cesario with Oliver Chris’ Orsino in which their attraction develops – hands touch, looks are held a little too long – laying the groundwork for the eventual conclusion. Phoebe Fox has a lot of fun as the cold Olivia brought back to life by her none-to-secret crush on Cesario, although she too has a chance for gravitas in a well-staged final scene.
The ease with which Godwin successfully changes-up the gender of the characters reflects how Shakespeare also toys with similar notions through the use of disguises in Twelfth Night. With a daft approach to at least three-quarters of the production, the melancholic ending doesn’t quite balance but a good choice for a Shakespearean birthday treat.
Streaming here until 30 April 2020