The National Theatre had a pretty impressive year in 2016 resuming its position as one of London’s most consistent and forward-thinking theatres, mixing reimagined classics with new writing. Under Rufus Norris’s artistic directorship its output has felt fresh, diverse and above all innovative, with Annie Baker’s The Flick, Robert Icke’s cinematic The Red Barn and Ivo van Hove’s eviscerating take on Hedda Gabler standing out in a year of hits. And the future is already full of promise with tickets to the revival of Angels in America selling like a rock concert, and new works like Consent to come in 2017, not to mention a 2018 announcement of Macbeth with Rory Kinnear and Anne-Marie Duff, as well as apparently Ralph Fiennes in Anthony and Cleopatra (announced a year ago but no further details), it’s fair to say you now go to the National expecting to be wowed.
But first up for 2017 is a new production of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night a perennial Christmas favourite that has nothing to do with the festive season, hence a February opening. It is clear from the promotional photography that this tale of disguise and unrequited love will largely focus on its comedy characters with Tamsin Greig taking the starring role as the re-gendered Malvolia. And the recasting allows the company to add freshness to an often performed play by playing with notions of sexuality – ideas hinted at in Shakespeare’s text through the frisson between Orsino and Viola when she is disguised as Cesario.
So the plot is an intricate one, starting with a shipwreck that parts twins Viola and Sebastian who both arrive in Illyria thinking the other had perished. Disguised as a boy called Cesario, Viola enters the employ of Duke Orsino and falls in love with him, but Orsino is in love with local noblewoman Olivia, who has foresworn all men. Orsino sends Cesario as messenger but Olivia falls in love with him, not realising its Viola in disguise. Running in parallel, Olivia’s drunken relative Sir Toby Belch and her servants decide to teach the arrogant steward Malvolia a lesson by letting her think Olivia loves her and orchestrate Malvolia’s public humiliation. People are disguised, hearts ache, wires are crossed and hilarity ensues, but Sebastian is still on the island and soon becomes involved in the mix-ups.
The National’s production, which has its press night on Wednesday, is primarily focused on the comedy aspects of the tale which downplays the central romantic stories and partially side-lines the play’s main character Viola. Director Simon Godwin who previously oversaw the brilliantly riotously The Beaux’ Stratagem at the National in 2015 which was a perfectly pitched farce, brings that knowledge to bear on this production of Twelfth Night helping his fine cast to find the levity in Shakespeare’s text while adding plenty of humorous physical and visual comedy touches. The result hasn’t yet meshed into a finely tuned show but, only a few performances in, there are a series of nicely realised comic scenarios which should link more seamlessly as the cast settle into the rhythm.
Aside from the cast, the real star of this version is the ever inventive Soutra Gilmour’s rotating fold-out pyramid set which simply transports the players to various settings relatively smoothly, while offering a slightly dreamlike feel. It starts as the bow of Viola and Sebastian’s ship steered into the rocks that set the story on its way, before triangular segments fold out into Olivia’s glass panelled villa, bricked street scenes, Olivia’s garden and even a gay bar with singing drag Queen – crooning Hamlet’s ‘To be or not to be’ speech. There’s also a large staircase leading to the top which gives the actors something to run around on but also a place to overhear or spy on the action. There were a couple of sticky moments when bits of the set malfunctioned forcing the actor’s to improvise, and the various flaps need to be walked into place by visible technicians, but Gilmour’s 30s meets 70s meets modern interpretation is fascinating, and she has amassed an eclectic body of work.
Gender-swapping within the cast is seamlessly done and makes perfect sense in the context of Godwin’s production. Leading them is Tamsin Greig’s Malvolia who initially puts you in mind of Shakespeare’s other great verbose and fussy attendant, Polonius from Hamlet. Grieg’s first appearance is as a severe and dark presence, clean black bob, and starkly dressed in plain shirt and culottes. The overall appearance is of an ogerish governess, humourless and unimpressed with those around her but certain that her own thoughts and actions are perfect behaviour. That all changes brilliantly on receipt of the faked letter from Olivia and the big reveal of Malvolia in the yellow stockings in part two, which has to be seen rather than spoiled, is a brilliantly timed piece of comedy which Greig relishes superbly. It’s a fun and wide-ranging performance that pins the show together really well.
Equally entertaining is Phoebe Fox’s almost entirely comic Olivia whose over-eager declarations of love and single-minded pursuit of Cesario are a real highlight. Fox brings initial restraint to Olivia, who is in mourning for her recently deceased father and brother, and is clearly a determined, strong young woman who bats away Orsino’s attentions and is admirably unwavering. Yet with the arrival of Cesario Fox utilises these character traits to great effect in trying to capture the object of her affection, as well as making the most of any opportunity to show a giggly or more suggestive aspect of the character.
Completing the comic set is the excellent Tim McMullen as Sir Toby Belch, Daniel Rigby as Sir Andrew Augecheek, Doon Mackichan as a gender-swapped fool Feste and Niki Wardley as Maria Olivia’s chambermaid who masterminds the plan against Malvolia. It’s a nicely delineated group but together love revelry and drive much of the comedy forward, with McMullen –sartorially channelling Laurence Llewelyn Bowen – and Wardley in particularly making an excellent team as the partying nobleman and the cheeky maid who takes control of him.
The lovers do get pretty short shrift in this version of the play and Orsino’s appearances which bookend the play make it difficult to understand how quickly he transfers his affection from Olivia to Viola. Oliver Chris’s Orsino is a bit of a playboy at the start, driving his sports car on stage to overtly attract Olivia with generic flowers but he genuinely seems devoted as he later mopes through a party-scene. With the emphasis on the comic, we get less chance to see the relationship with Cesario / Viola tip over into something more romantic.
Tamara Lawrance’s Viola is satisfyingly tomboyish making her male disguise convincing and, a difficult thing in modern versions of Shakespeare’s plays, almost believable. And while she hasn’t quite captured the depth of the romance, it’s still early days and that will come. Finally Daniel Ezra is an excellent Sebastian, suitably perplexed by the mistaken identity dramas and with plenty of swagger to give the fight scenes credibility. But there is a hint at Sebastian’s homosexuality in scenes with ship’s captain Antonio and at the gay bar which aren’t followed though when he becomes embroiled in the story with Olivia.
It’s still early in the run and with a couple of previews left before press night there is time to smooth the flow and link more consistently between the high comic moments and the rest of the play which will make its long three hour run time skip more quickly. There are lots of lovely comic performances which carry it along very nicely and, Gilmour’s spectacular set aside, while the show may not have the wow of recent National Theatre productions or build to the farcical pitch it aspires to, this version of Twelfth Night is an entertaining and well-staged evening with plenty of fun moments that keep the audience laughing.
Twelfth Night is at The National Theatre until 13 May and tickets start at £15. It will be broadcast live to cinemas on 6 April, and is also part of the Friday Rush scheme, offering tickets for the following week at £20 – available from 1pm on Fridays. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1