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Twelfth Night at The National Theatre – Review

Twelfth Night - Tamsin Greig as Malvolia, Tamara Lawrance as Viola, image by Marc Brenner
Twelfth Night – Tamsin Greig as Malvolia, Tamara Lawrance as Viola, image by Marc Brenner

Directors love playing around with Shakespeare. There is something in the stories he wrote and the language he used which gives so many of his plays the flexibility to be staged in weird and wonderful ways. I’ve seen Othello set in the world of corporate banking, Romeo and Juliet, played out amid the background of the miners’ strike and A Midsummer Night’s Dream moved to a voodoo influenced New Orleans. So, when I was offered the chance to see the new production of Twelfth Night at the National, I leapt at it.

Off the coast of ancient Illyria a boat is floundering. Aboard the ship are fraternal twins Viola (Tamara Lawrance) and Sebastian (Daniel Ezra) who, get separated as the ship goes down. Each is rescued by a member of the crew, Viola by the Captain (James Wallace) and Sebastian by Antonio (Adam Best). Separately, they arrive at the coast, each believing the other to be dead. Viola resolves to disguise herself as a boy named Cesario and join the household of Duke Orsino (Oliver Chris) a local nobleman with problems of his own. He is in love with Countess Olivia (Phoebe Fox). She, for her part does not requite his love as she is in mourning for the death of her brother. Olivia is very wealthy and has a host of servants, ruled over by her puritanical steward Malvolia (Tasmin Greig). Also in her household is her uncle Sir Toby Belch (Tim McMullan) a man splits his time between following a bacchanalian lifestyle in the company of his ‘friend’ Sir Andrew Aguecheek, flirting with Olivia’s maid Maria (Niky Wardley) and thinking up wicked humiliations with Olivia’s Fool, the incorrigible Feste (Doon Mackichan). Crossdressing servants, lesbian lust, love both unrequited and accepted and stuffed peacocks to be taken down a peg or two. The stage is set for Twelfth Night revels to be remembered whenever people revel and quaff.

Looking back, this is the fourth version of Twelfth Night I have seen in the last two years and I have to say, this was by far the best. This is the National Theatre showing why it is still one of the country’s foremost when it comes to showcasing plays. The set by Soutra Gilmour hits you as soon as you walk in and see it, looking like the bow of a mighty ship, but this pyramidal structure is so much more. It is a stupendous piece of art that revolves to be many things including a box tree planted garden, a spar, a chapel, Olivia’s entrance hall and, at one point, a flashy gay nightclub complete with drag queen singing Hamlet’s soliloquy. A really stupendous set that delivers everything expected of it and so much more. The set is not the only surprising element of this version of Twelfth Night. The change of Malvolio to Malvolia is inspired, as is ensuring that there is little doubt about Antonio’s sexual orientation. In fact, there is a lovely mixture of sexual orientations in this play. Orsino falls in love with a boy who is really a girl while Olivia falls for a girl pretending to be a boy. There is a real suggestion of love and gender identity not being related to each other. An interesting thing with Twelfth Night is in the writing. Shakespeare takes the characters through a whole host of situations, both good and bad, before heading off to a happy ending which, just as the audience is relaxing, is snatched away with the final scene of Malvolia’s humiliation and the chilling words “I’ll be revenged on the whole pack of you” as she stalks off. I’ve never really understood why Will does this but then again, so much about Twelfth Night is topsy-turvy that maybe it does make sense after all.

This production, under Director Simon Goodwin, runs beautifully along with a fine cast of seasoned and young actors bringing it to life in style. Tamara Lawrance is excellent as the young Viola/Cesario treading a fine tightrope between being a boy and a girl beautifully. The very gender fluid costume aiding the shifting between male and female nicely. And then there is Tasmin Greig’s truly wonderful performance of Malvolia. Initially, a bit of a shrinking violet in black and white, with a Darth Vader haircut, Malvolia hates everything and everybody except her mistress who she loves in every way and sees as her means of climbing the social ladder when Countess marries Steward. They do say that sometimes an actor can steal a scene but in this case, Tamsin pretty much steals the play and the scene where she finds the letter from her mistress is truly wonderful. Malvolia breaks the fourth wall talks directly to the audience, even admonishing us when those with minds in the gutter make a connection between three letters of the alphabet that I couldn’t possibly go into here.

At a running time of around three hours including interval, there is nothing left out of this version of Twelfth Night but it’s surprising how the time flies. This is a fun production with the emphasis on the many comedic elements of the story rather than dwelling on the melodramatic side. Everyone plays their part to produce a really great evening’s entertainment and present the Bard at his absolute best.

4 stars

Review by Terry Eastham

A ship is wrecked on the rocks. Viola is washed ashore but her twin brother Sebastian is lost. Determined to survive on her own, she steps out to explore a new land.

So begins a whirlwind of mistaken identity and unrequited love. The nearby households of Olivia and Orsino are overrun with passion. Even Olivia’s upright housekeeper Malvolia is swept up in the madness. Where music is the food of love, and nobody is quite what they seem, anything proves possible.


Twelfth Night
by William Shakespeare
Running Time: about 3 hours, including 20-minute interval
Olivier Theatre
Booking From: 15th Feb 2017
Booking Until: 17th Apr 2017



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