By John Lombard
National Theatre Live
On until 30 April
Review by John Lombard
Gender identity is the soul of the National Theatre’s 2017 production of Twelfth Night, now streaming as part of National Theatre Live.
This is still Shakespeare’s tale of a woman disguised as a boy, and the unrequited loves that sprout from that “wickedness”.
But director Simon Godwin extends this theme by transforming male Malvolio into a female Malvolia (Tamsin Greig), introducing a queer kink into the steward’s messianic courtship of their lady Olivia (Phoebe Fox).
Far from a gimmick, Greig’s pitiless Malvolia is the centre of this production. Often, Twelfth Night falters when the actor fosters too much sympathy for Malvolio, which makes the revenge of the revellers seem cruel. Here, Malvolia usurps their mistress by pretending to speak for them, and even yanks on a servant’s hair to make a point. Malvolia digs their own grave, and their humiliation is a satisfying pratfall.
Tamara Lawrance is satisfying as the clever and resourceful Viola, and has exceptional chemistry with Phoebe Fox’s spicy and ironic Olivia. A thirsty Olivia yanking Viola into the pool with her is a comic triumph.
Oliver Chris understands that his character Orsino is barking mad, but gives him a charisma and generosity that makes Viola’s love for him plausible. Tim McMullan plays Sir Toby as a fearsome Bacchus rather than a merry sot, while Daniel Digby is a loveable but shambolic puppy as Sir Andrew. Doon Mackichan plays the authority-flouting fool Fest with surprising gravity, while Daniel Ezra as Viola’s twin Sebastian simmers with spirit, and Niky Wardley’s Maria shines with cleverness.
An epilogue tacked onto the end of the play gives us final vignettes of the characters moving forward, a touch that smooths the finale by showing that life goes on, especially for losers Sir Andrew and Malvolia.
Playful modern touches such as the teddy bear Orisno delivers to Olivia that eventually becomes the companion of Sir Andrew, Orsino’s boxfit flirtation with Viola, or incarnation of pub The Elephant into a gay nightclub give the play ebullient sparkle.
Tamsin Greig’s brilliant characterisation of Malvolia steers this play through stormy waters, which lets the audience enjoy the mayhem with a sunny conscience. This Twelfth Night punishes the vain and cruel and rewards the bright and loving, using salubrious anarchy to shred melancholy.