REVIEW: Twelfth Night, National Theatre ✭✭✭✭✭

Tamsin Greig in Twelfth Night at the National Theatre
Doon Mackichan and Tamsin Greig in Twelfth Night

Twelfth Night
National Theatre – Olivier
22 February 2017
5 Stars
Book Tickets

Tamsin Greig leads a triumphant Twelfth Night at The National, ingeniously re-imaging one of Shakespeare’s most bitter misanthropes as Malvolia. The production is gloriously wacky and stunning to behold. Truly I saw the future of theatre, and it was beautiful.

The pre-set was cold and icy; what seemed like the prow of a steel ship protruded aggressively toward the audience under a canopy of stars that twinkled with malice. Little white tents hovered ghostlike in the distance, skewing the perspective. The tempest that begins the play is as cataclysmic a storm as any I’ve ever seen on stage; smoke plumed into the vast Olivier theatre, and scrabbling sailors scrambled and dangled as the ship broke apart, separating Viola (Tamara Lawrence) from her twin Sebastian (Daniel Ezra). The astonishing soundscapes including bellowing foghorns and crashing waves eventually abate and we are left with a frantic Viola waking in a hospital bed in the foreign land of Illyria.

Twelfth Night at National Theatre

The set was stupendous, a giant pyramid or “whirligig of time,” if you will, that transformed seamlessly from interior, to garden, to nightclub, church, and more. This triangle’s ability to change and transfigure reflects the gender-bending love triangle and themes of the play; where girls dress as boys, fall in love with boys in love with girls, who swoon over girls dressed as boys. Adding to this gender chaos, Tamsin Greig plays Malvolia, the griping steward in Olivia’s court who aspires to “greatness” and romance with the lady Olivia. Her austere and obsessive disposition is reflected in every gesticulation to phenomenal comedic effect. Her voice is commanding and her use of the language feels totally fresh, as if this role has been waiting for her to play it. Superlative moments include her taking Olivia’s insult, “you are sick of self-love, Malvolia, and taste with a distempered appetite,” as a compliment, and also her intense demonstrating to one lonely bottle of Heineken whilst complaining that Belch has made an “alehouse,” of Olivia’s home.

Book tickets for Twelfth Night
Daniel Rigby and Niky Wardley in Twelfth Night

However, this is a well-cast ensemble, notably Doon Mackichan, who looks like she’s just rolled out of Freshfields, Sir Andrew Aguecheek, played adorably daft by Daniel Rigby, and a louche hip-swivelling Sir Toby Belch from Tim McMullan, desperately hanging on to nights out with the younger crowd. There is lovely support from Imogen Doel as Fabia, who seems to be a cross between a 2016 Ghostbuster and Bubble, and Olivia who is played delightfully by an amusingly voracious Phoebe Fox. Tamara Lawrence and Daniel Ezra make convincing twins, and their reunion is affecting and sweet.

This Twelfth Night is bombastic and joyfully absurd, but this means that some of the tender moments of the play are somewhat ironed out. We missed the heart-breaking demurral “I was adored once too,” and “patience on a monument,” was gabbled out with such fury we lost all its poetry. These misses were made up for though by wonderfully inventive additions, including a towering drag queen in a nightclub belting through Hamlet’s “to be or not to be”, and Tamsin Greig’s letter scene, which deserved every decibel of its spontaneous applause.

This is a bloody flashy production, it feels Simon Godwin has thrown everything he can find at it including the kitchen sink, or in this case, hot tub and spa. I am not too proud to say that when I got home, I cried. To see a tall woman who doesn’t really fit the uniform Disney Princess mould be recognised unequivocally as the star was too exhilarating for words. This production has blown open any lingering arguments as to how limiting casting by gender can be, and I hope the theatrical community has taken note. We end with Malvolia climbing the staircase into the falling rain. Like Viola at the start of the play she has potential to be reborn and start anew in the cleansing of the storm. Her humiliation can be absolved, her shame showered away.


Share via
Send this to a friend