Nattional Theatre (venue)
22 February 2017 (released)
25 February 2017
Simon Godwin’s Twelfth Night is a joyous romp, twisting a kalaediscope of new possibilities from the gender swapping, role playing plot. Tamsin Greig transforms steward Malvolio into Malvolia, Feste (usually an old man) is a forty something party girl played by Doon Mackichan. Then there’s Fabian turned impish Fabia (Imogen Doel), and the cross-dressing diva at Elephant jazz club who rises from the stage, singing ‘To be or not to be… ‘ Gender swapping aside, there is comedy and intrigue in unsuspecting corners of the dazzling rotating set designed by Soutra Gilmour, the silent star of the show.
Gathered somewhere hot and expensive in the late nineties – it’s party time for the rich and not a hint of old taverns or kegs of ale. As the lights come up on a 5 star hotel-palace, Orsino (think Prince William) steps out of a vintage car to the sound of cicadas and buzzes on Olivia’s intercom... In some it's ways it's at opposite ends of the spectrum to the recent Donmar Prison Trilogy which explored Shakespeare with virtually no frills, yet they share the spirit of exhuberant experimentation and bold female casting that’s been gaining momentum.
Tamsin Greig as Malvolia, part Miss Trunchball, part Mother superior is in love with Olivia and ripe for a humiliating fall. Grieg maximises every second on stage with precise characterisation, fine tuned comic physicality and a skilful touch of audience interaction. Doon Mackichan’s Feste is a convincing transformation of Shakespeare’s dissolution clown, her sparkling boots and hot-pants scarcely disguising a profound emptiness and exhaustion. Turning Olivia’s house into a rave rather than a tavern, Sir Toby Belch resembles Lawrence Llewelyn Bowen, all lilac ruffles, skinny jeans and big hair. It’s hard to take your eyes off Daniel Rigby’s Andrew Aguecheek who is deliciously posh but dim, in love with Toby and finding fresh humour in the linguistic confusions.
If ever there was a play that justifies so much attention to costume and slippery sexual orientation, this is it. Olivia’s staff wear Elizabethan ruffs and over-sized dark glasses whilst Malvolia’s yellow stockings are combined with a leotard and Pierrot cloak. Viola can’t keep her hands off Orsino and Olivia, far from being trapped in grief, is so determined to undress Viola (disguised as a man, Cesario) that she profers gold swimming trunks and drags her into the Jacuzzi before straddling her. Orsino may be comicly relieved to discover his page is a girl but is quite happy to kiss her brother Sebastian while he has the chance. Sometimes these bold decisions don’t feel entirely inhabited, but the risks reap comic rewards.
For all the laughs, Twelfth night is a play pre-occupied with loss and the passing of time, poetically revealed in the spinning sun-dial of a set and Malvolia’s slow climb up the pyramid steps into the pouring rain. If something has been lost in all the fun and beauty, it’s the pathos usually engendered when the joke turns nasty and the deep sense of melancholy at the heart of the play.
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