Tag Archives: Oliver Chris

One Man, Two Guvnors – National Theatre at Home

One Man, Two Guvnors - National Theatre At Home

In the past 11 years the way we engage with and consume theatre has changed, thanks in large part to the efforts of National Theatre Live, launched in 2009 to beam productions to cinemas around the world allowing far wider access to (largely) London’s best shows. In what has been nothing short of a revolution in how organisations engage with audiences and,with several live screenings each year capturing the very best theatre has to offer, millions of people have been able to enjoy performances they would otherwise never have seen due to geographical or financial restrictions. As opera, dance and all kinds of theatre took steps to increase their filmed offerings, every screening has become an ‘event’, creating a substantial community of people dedicated to creating and watching arts content for the price of a cinema ticket.

It has been a significant development, and for £20-£25, which would buy you a restricted and likely distant view in a West End theatre, cinema-goers have a perspective better even than the front row because in its decade-long history, the skills of the NT Live camera crew and directors has made watching each production an intimate and cinematic experience while never losing the excitement of live theatre. It’s never quite the same as being in the room with the actors but there has been a huge development in the filming process, expertly using wide screen shots to show the whole stage, mixed with the intimacy of tighter frames and quick cuts to reflect the emotional and psychological tension within a play. Anyone who saw the recent live screening of Jamie Lloyd’s Cyrano de Bergerac will appreciate how skillfully the NT Live team plotted the technical set-up of the shoot to capture the vibrancy and intimacy of the production which fizzed beautifully from the screen – and if anyone ever doubted that a cinema relay could even minutely reflect the intensity of the room, the long, slow intimacy of that close-up as James McAvoy delivered Cyrano’s great monologue had hearts beating wildly up and down the country.

The point is that the National Theatre has been at the vanguard of community outreach for a long time, and while some of its scheduling choices have come under fire in recent years and its London-centric approach criticised – and any national institution should rightly and publicly be held to account – the temporary creation of National Theatre at Home is a savvy, meaningful and entirely welcome contribution to the development of a remote community at a time of crisis. There is a lot of theatre available to stream, many Companies are generously making vintage shows available for short periods but with all its PR resources the National Theatre is creating a lockdown event, encouraging viewers to sit down at 7pm every Thursday to watch one of its archive productions as it first airs. Alone together last week around 200,000 people did just that, rising to almost a million by lunchtime on Friday – and potentially far more if multiple people are gathered round the screen.

The first show in the National Theatre at Home programme was the 2011 smash-hit One Man, Two Guvnors, one of the great success stories of the Nicholas Hytner era, a cheeky farce written by Richard Bean and starring National Theatre favourites James Corden and Oliver Chris. On its initial release, the show enjoyed a run in the Lyttleton before a West End transfer which ran for three years, a Broadway run and three UK tours, plus an international production that went to Hong Kong and Australia. As one of the National Theatre’s most successful and much-loved shows, One Man, Two Guvnors is a superb choice to lift a nation’s spirits, and even watching alone knowing that hundreds of thousands of others were doing the same felt significant. And it’s the first time we’ve all really laughed in weeks. If you’ve never seen it before, then you are in for a treat.

Set in 1960s Brighton, Bean’s play with music is as superb an example of brilliantly plotted and executed farce as you will ever see. Something that looks this light and effortlessly silly on the surface is incredibly sophisticated and technical to create. The mixture of word play and physical humour is complicated and there are moments when jokes come at a quick fire pace or when one piece of slapstick leads to another and then another in a rolling effect that requires everyone to be exactly in the right place without making any of it feel contrived or overly rehearsed which this production achieved with astonishing precision while retaining the freshness of each comic scenario.

The plot is classic farce, utlising mistaken identity, twins and disguises to ingenious effect while three sets of apparently unrelated characters create havoc for lead Francis Henshall who is pulled in various directions when he ends-up working for two bosses at the same time. But while Bean employs a lot of the techniques of the genre, he uses them in unexpected ways and often what seem like obvious set-ups such as money given to the wrong employer or the physical consumption of a crucial letter which should result in eventual confrontation and exposure for Francis, are used almost like red herrings, resolved (or forgotten) quickly with little consequence. The result is to keep the audience on their toes, diverting us away from the lazy cliche which may cause our attention to wander and instead using the comedy set-up to unexpected effect.

The great set-piece of One Man, Two Guvnors comes at the end of Act One as inside The Cricketers pub where both Guvnors Stanley Stubbers and Roscoe Crabbe are staying, the hungry Francis is required to serve them both a multi-course lunch with the help of a decrepit and unsteady waiter on his first day in the job (think Victoria Wood “Two Soups” sketch). With room mix-ups, food arrivals being dashed between the diners while being siphoned off by Francis for himself, some terrified audience participation and plenty of examples of the waiter being hit by doors and falling down the stairs, this scene is a comic delight and absolute nothing to do with the plot. It’s a clever choice by Bean, deciding to include a lengthy segment that doesn’t advance the story but gives insight into the burden on Francis, and the play’s chance to include a scene that is just funny purely for its own sake, beautifully pitched by the cast – and if you worry for the poor lady dragged out of the front row, take a look at everyone in the curtain call and rest easy.

And there is added joy for theatre-lovers in Bean’s writing that sets this show above the average, with plenty of references to other writers and styles that add an extra dimension to the humour. The structure borrows much from Shakespeare comedies of course using twins and gender disguises to fool other characters, while the inclusion of asides to the audience which both Francis and Dolly use to great effect creates a sense of confederacy with the viewer, as well as plenty of meta ad libbing as a houmous sandwich offered by a man in the third row threatens to ruin everything.

Surprisingly there is a touch of Pinter too, a low-level hint of menace as Roscoe brings London’s 1960s East End gangsters to Brighton to frighten Charlie Clench as various degrees of powerful men try to intimidate each other to receive money owed with threats of violence that drives the plot. The contrasting seediness of this behaviour in the seaside setting is also very Pinteresque, redolent of the coastal boarding house of The Birthday Party, while one of the finest jokes references Chekhov’s The Seagull. There is a confidence in how seamlessly these influences fit into what is entirely a comic play, demonstrating Bean’s skill as a writer in creating larger-than-life-scenarios while acknowledge a debt to key theatre practitioners.

Designed by Mark Thompson this is a cartoon version of the 60s that suits the quirky style of the humour, lots of purposefully unreal looking flats painted to look like houses, pubs and a backdrop seaside vista complete with illustrated pier, while the interior of Charlie Clench’s house where several scenes are set is a homage to big prints and homely furnishings, all of which look just as wonderfully quirky and hyper-real onscreen. Director Nicholas Hytner keeps things flowing brilliantly and the 2 hours and 40 minutes of this production fly by, it’s 90-minutes before the interval (edited out of this National Theatre At Home version) and you won’t even notice you’re having so much fun. Scene changes are masked by a dropped curtain and a faux skiffle band called ‘The Craze’ with original and period-appropriate songs written, composed and performed by Grant Olding, along with band mates Philip James, Richard Coughlan and Ben Brooker which add to the 60s atmosphere. In the second half, these are enhanced and varied when the cast join in with steel drums, a girl group and even a horn-playing Oliver Chris.

As Francis, James Corden gives one of his best performances, managing the elements of the farce with ease while making it seem as though the story is unfolding naturally, especially enhanced by the odd ad lib as Corden reacts to audience interaction and tries not to laugh at fellow cast members. His Francis is a little weaselly initially as an opportunity to make double money drops in his lap, but there’s an everyman quality that brings the audience onside as the comic effects become increasingly ridiculous. Full of charm, Corden bewitches audiences in the room and at home as we hope for a happy ending all round.

The supporting roles are delivered with equal verve; Oliver Chris is every second a joy as the boarding school posh boy on the run, a big exuberant performance that mines a rich seam of comedy that has a sitcom silliness to the delivery (and how sad that his new play Jack Absolute Flies Again has to be postponed); Jemima Rooper as the disguised Roscoe / Rachel has tons of fun switching between gender characteristics while producing some genuine threat; Suzie Toase as love interest Dolly is a whip smart bookkeeper who knows how to manage her life and her man, while Daniel Rigby as aspiring actor Alan, Claire Lams as his permanently vacant fiancee Pauline and Fred Ridgeway as her father Charlie add plenty of extra dimension to the wonderful nonsense of the play.

The energy of this 2011 production carries to the screen so well and with four more days to see it on the National Theatre at Home Youtube Channel this is the injection of pure joy we all need right now. The NT has some absolutely stellar productions in its archive and it will be interesting to see if some of those filmed elsewhere will also feature depending how long the lockdown continues – Tom Hiddleston’s Coriolanus at the Donmar was exemplary, as was Ivo van Hove’s A View from the Bridge and Gillian Anderson in A Streetcar Named Desire both produced by the Young Vic. With three further productions announced, Jane Eyre from Thursday at 7pm, followed by Treasure Island and Twelfth Night on successive weeks, this inaugural home screening has been a communal gift to the nation, event theatre lives on!

One Man, Two Guvnors is available to watch for free via National Theatre at Home until 7pm on Thursday 9 April, when it will be replaced with Jane Eyre. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog


A Midsummer Night’s Dream – Bridge Theatre

A Midsummer Night's Dream - Bridge Theatre (Manuel Harlan)

A Midsummer Night’s Dream may be a perennial favourite, a light romantic comedy of tampered relationships and fairy magic, but on closer inspection it’s not quite the harmless fun that we think it is. Last year, The Faction gave us a darker interpretation, full of sinister woodland creatures and lurking danger amplified by the shadowy gloom of Wilton’s Music Hall, insisting that meddling sprites were spiteful interlopers keen to disrupt the human world. Now, Nicholas Hytner’s immersive production at the Bridge Theatre has a new dimension to add, one that highlights and rectifies the shameful treatment of women in the play.

It has been another difficult year for the Bridge, with new play commissions continuing the theatre’s disappointing run. Nightfall, Alys, Always and Allelujah! opened to lukewarm reviews while the much-anticipated A Very Very Dark Matter from the celebrated pen of Martin McDonagh was an anger-inducing waste of major theatre space. No wonder then that Hytner and co. have gone back to the Bridge’s only true smash hit for inspiration.

It may have been established to house new work but it fell to an ever-reliable writer called William Shakespeare to save the day, and last February the Bridge Theatre unveiled its immersive production of Julius Caesar – an innovative and tub-thumping triumph that was everything theatre should be. Energised by its judicious two-hour run-time, excellent performances and smart design, Hytner’s approach was both slick and full of staging surprises that played well to its in-the-round audience whether seated or part of the crowd in the pit.

Hytner adopts a lot of the same methods for A Midsummer Night’s Dream and achieves much the same, although perhaps an ever so slightly less rousing, effect with spectacle aplenty and some wonderful comic performances that shake-up a tired play. But it is the slight rearrangement of the text and its implication for the female characters that is Hytner’s most notable achievement here, adding additional perspectives on the social structures of Shakespeare’s piece while making greater sense of the overall story.

It opens in a grey dystopian world, Hippolyta dressed in nun-like garb is trapped in a glass box listening to a choral choir as the audience take their places. Soon the severe Theseus speaks in solemn tones about his forthcoming wedding to the bride he won in battle – a throwaway line that’s easy to miss – a dynastic union of conquest and humiliation for the ensnared Queen. Christina Cunningham’s costumes nod to The Handmaid’s Tale as the women cover their hair with a scarf and dress in loose-fitting uniforms that demand their subservience and silence.

Normally it is the men who run this play, Theseus and Egeus decide who The Lovers should marry, while in the play’s fantastical middle section it is the jealous Oberon who enchants Titania so she humiliatingly cavorts with the ass-headed Bottom, while impish Puck mistakenly bewitches the wrong man resulting in frustration and further indignities for Helena and Hermia. Hytner however subverts the way in which these magical ministrations play upon the feelings of the women by partially transposing the characters of Oberon and Titania to political and comic effect.

After fighting over the changeling boy, it is Titania who decides to teach Oberon a lesson by dowsing his sleeping eyes with a magical flower so that he falls in love with Bottom instead. The result is hilarious in a production that hints at sexual fluidity in several characters and makes for an unusual but very smart re-imagining of the play’s core comic scenes in which Oliver Chris as Oberon and Hammed Animashaun are delightfully funny. But this well-judged silliness holds a deeper meaning, and Hytner uses these woodland antics to underscore the revolution taking place back in Athens in which women are liberated from their secondary role. With Theseus and Oberon essentially the same character, the events of this midsummer night in which Hippolyta/Titania decides to teach him a lesson before she can marry him, start to make perfect sense in this slightly amended narrative arc. The result is a captured Queen regarded now as an equal rather than a prize.

It is a notable change to the original play but one that brings a fresh, more contemporary feel to the play’s major relationships without altering the overall plot or even much of Shakespeare’s original text. A Midsummer Night’s Dream can bear such playful rearrangement and in a year where two other professional productions lay ahead at The Globe and Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre, one or both will surely provide a more traditional approach for purists. And it’s reassuring to know that such a well-known play can still yield plenty of insight with a little fairy ingenuity.

Equally impressive is Bunny Christie’s wonderful set, and as with Julius Caesar last year a variety of small block stages rise from different points in the floor to create variety and a dynamic energy within the show. But the magical elements of A Midsummer Night’s Dream are also explored using several iron bedsteads (focusing on the title’s final word – dream) that appear around the room on which the various relationship pairings will sleep and be drugged. As the action unfolds, these become increasingly entwined with the forest as vines and flowers wrap around the frame and, after a quick change at the interval, a maze-like structure of bunkbeds, grassy patches, mattresses and single bed frames link together through the centre of the pit to create the confusing woodland layout.

But Christie has even more tricks to entertain us and so the fairies become circus performers suspended from the ceiling on loops of cloth in which they can perform a gymnastic display above the heads of the pit crowd. At several points Titania and Puck watch and guide the action from the air, while the fairies perform a full acrobatic routine during the interval to reinforce the immersive magic of the overall production. Beds too rise into the air as sleeping lovers are placed on pause while other activities take place. These carefully choreographed and well executed sequences are delightful, while the complex transitions are really well managed by the creative and technical team who create an effortlessly busy and fairy-tale effect.

Already a very fine comic actor, Oliver Chris has a particular ear for Shakespeare’s rhythms and his Oberon is one of this production’s most successful choices. His overly enamoured fairy King is perfectly pitched mining different aspects of Shakespeare’s comedy to maximise all the hilarity of the love affair with Bottom. The earnest and exuberant enthusiasm with which Chris delivers lines that elsewhere belong to Titania contrast brilliantly with the equal solemnity of his Theseus, a grave and joyless man leading a dangerous state. Yet it is the visual comedy that so well underscores this middle section of the play without distracting from Shakespeare’s characterisation, and whether cavorting with Bottom in a variety of comic guises or revealing the shy and bold characteristics of his enchanted love, Chris delivers a well-balanced physical and intellectual performance that is a highlight of the evening.

His fairy Queen Titania, played by Gwendoline Christie, is a commanding presence enacting her mischievous plan not just for her own amusement – as a straightforwardly gendered production suggests – but to reveal the limitations of Theseus/Oberon’s view of the world. Christie is simultaneously an ethereal presence in her sweeping green gown (a stunning creation by Cunningham) and a warrior Queen. The continuity of character from the captured Hippolyta who may be the spoils of war but whose power to change the course of the action is undiminished as she becomes the revenge-taking Titania has a nice clarity in Christie’s performance, making greater sense of the play’s happier ending once her future husband has been tamed by her power rather this his army.

The Lovers are difficult, often quite tepid roles but Isis Hainsworth’s Hermia, Kit Young’s Lysander, Paul Adeyefa’s Demetrius and Tessa Bonham Jones as Helena form a more interesting quartet than often seen, driven by different lusts and moments of sexual fluidity that reveal the extent of the fairies’ meddling, while David Moorst channels a bit of Lee Evans in his servile but cheeky Puck who feels equally at home as an otherworldly presence on the circus ropes as he does down in the pit bantering with audience members failing to make way for him.

The Rude Mechanicals can be one of the hardest sections of the play to get right and the final enactment of the Pyramus and Thisbe tale a late-stage distraction that prolongs our home time. Not so in this production where the enthusiastic amateur players become a unified comic force in their matching sweatshirts (very Pitch Perfect) while retaining just enough individuality to distinguish between them. Led by Felicity Montagu’s Quince the jealousies and frustrations of this little group are revealed, but it is Animashaun’s interpretation of Bottom that invariably steals all the best lines, building a rapport with the audience that lasts right through the play-within-a-play. Bottom’s lack of self-awareness about his acting ability within the Mechanicals and his physical attractiveness as a lover is very funny, and Animashaun’s chemistry with Chris adds so much to their scenes together. Perhaps the most surprising achievement is how well the actors work together to make that final scene genuinely funny with a few extra nods to the in-the-round and immersive nature of this production that send the audience home on a high.

Hytner’s production is not quite as good as last year’s Julius Caesar, partly because it’s a better play than A Midsummer Night’s Dream but also, to a degree, the novelty of the immersive staging has a touch less impact the second time around. It’s also not as slick with the advertised run-time already adding 10-minutes to make it 2 hours and 50 minutes currently. Nonetheless, Hytner always directs Shakespeare so well, and his approach to the text offers considered and genuinely interesting insight as well as more than enough spectacle to reinforce the play’s magical quality. The Bridge Theatre has made these immersive productions its own, and unlike the usual proscenium arrangement that flattens all their new work, the energy and excitement of these immersive shows is fully engaging whether you are seated or standing in the pit. There are a few more version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream to come before the summer is out, but it’s unlikely there’ll be a better one than this.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream is at the Bridge Theatre until 31st August with seated of standing tickets from £15. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog


Young Marx – Bridge Theatre

Young Marx, Bridge Theatre by Manuel Harlan

Once you’ve been the head of one of the most respected and well-known theatres in London, what can you possibly do next? Well, apparently you take everything you’ve learned, head beyond the Southbank and Bankside to create your very own purpose-built theatre amidst the new bars and restaurant around City Hall. After announcing the project more than a year ago and frequent pictorial updates on its construction, Nicholas Hytner’s new Bridge Theatre is now officially open for business next to Tower Bridge, with its first play Young Marx already looking extremely solid ahead of its press night later this week.

As much charm as there is in our Victorian theatres, their size and facilities were built for a different age, so a brand new theatre means more comfortable seats made for normal-sized people, the chance to create decent sight-lines from every vantage point, and most importantly more than two ladies toilets per floor. Happily, the Bridge has all these things, in fact the auditorium is almost a carbon copy of the Dorfman at the National, only bigger, and despite the crush in the foyer, this has the potential to become a great social and cultural space.

Its inaugural performance is a new play by Richard Bean and Clive Coleman about the less well-known younger years of Karl Marx. We think of Marx these days as an old man with a big beard writing dry economic theory and giving 70s historians concepts to try and fit the past into. Bean and Coleman’s vision couldn’t be further from this image, and instead this Marx is a bit of a scoundrel, careering around Soho, pawning anything he can get his hands on, hiding from the bailiffs and exasperating his long-suffering family.

Marx, his wife and two children are hiding in 1850s London from their Prussian persecutors unable to ever return to Germany. Living in penury in a shabby two room apartment in Soho, Marx has more pressing concerns; he’s expected to start an anti-capitalist revolution but can’t write while he spends all his time trying to quell the violent tendencies of The Communist League, visiting all 18 pubs on Tottenham Court Road and hiding in a cupboard. But when secret information is revealed, Marx must uncover the spy in his midst, and, with the help of his old friend, Engels, finally write his masterwork currently titled ‘Economic Shit’.

Young Marx is an enjoyable cartoon caper, a delightful farce that also manages to be occasionally quite touching. Based on real events in his life, his Marx is a not-quite-so-lovable rogue who will make the audience despair as they’re laughing at each self-inflicted mess he gets himself into. But the play’s success is surrounding Marx with a colourful cast of radicals in The Communist League, friends and family that give a flavour of his life and the impact of his self-centred behaviour on those around him. Happily, this also includes two well-constructed roles for the women in his life, his wife Jenny and their maid Nym.

Bean and Coleman’s play also avoids many of the tiresome Dickensian clichés which have become such a lazy shorthand for any aspect of poverty in the Victorian era, giving the whole thing a thrumming life of its own, allowing it to maintain an infectious energy throughout, which Mark Thompson’s hyper-real revolving set supports extremely well. He may live in a little more than a squat, consorting with pawnbrokers and vagabonds, but Marx feels like a thoroughly modern man, deeply flawed and entirely human, but with a force of nature, a chemistry that, despite their better judgement, has other people dancing to his tune.

And this feels really relevant to the way we glorify and accept the failings of our own celebrities, with poor behaviour and diva demands written-off as “artistic temperament”. The idea that someone’s genius – be it intellectual or creative – is worth the price of their arrogance, entitlement and inability to accept that codes of decency apply to them, is one that feels especially pertinent at the moment in the wake of revelations about the misuse of power by TV personalities and Hollywood moguls that have come to light in recent years. In these examples, and beneath the comic gloss of the play, is an important central question about what we are and should be willing to forgive just because someone happens to sing or pontificate especially well.

As Marx, Rory Kinnear balances all of these competing characteristics, offering a portrait of a reprobate economic theorists whose every thought is about anti-capitalist revolution or having a good time himself. Even preparing breakfast for the family he lets down again and again, becomes a lecture on the provenance of a sausage. But Kinnear’s skill is in wrapping all of this in a perfectly-timed comic shell, keeping the tone light and breezy most of the time, and landing the more emotional moments at just the right pitch.

Marx is not a man you’re asked to love or even respect, and Kinnear shows the audience that every hilarious encounter is also an example of him betraying, using or avoiding someone to get what he wants – if he was any richer he’d be an out-and-out cad. While Kinnear has focused on serious European theatre in the last couple of years with The Trial and The Threepenny Opera, it’s clear this role is the most fun he’s had, and arguably his best, since he played Iago at The National. He relishes every ounce of his carefree rascal, delivering put-downs with a whip-like severity and trampling over his loved ones… but then he has the rights of the worker to defend.

His partner “Freddie” Engels, played with charm by Oliver Chris, is a more responsible and self-aware contrast in the jokey Vaudevillian partnership of “Marx and Engels, Engels and Marx”, a frequently repeated refrain that binds them together. Engels role is largely to protect Marx from himself and clear up his messes, and the believable brotherhood Chris and Kinnear create is vital in accepting some of the plot’s later twists. But, Chris makes Engels more than a footnote in the story of his more famous friend, giving him both a lothario’s existence and a conscience that become the voice of reason in the play.

Again and again, Engels tries to encourage Marx to write, recognising his superior talent for expressing their political beliefs and inspiring others. His own background, sent to work in his family’s Manchester factory but with independent means, is used to show his own devotion to his friend and the sacrifices he is prepared to make to ensure Marx becomes the great man he is supposed to be, and Chris’s Engels is a sympathetic figure while also making the most of the comedy double-act.

Nancy Carroll’s Jenny is a suitably conflicted wife, furious with her husband’s lack of respect and failure to provide for his family, while also still being drawn to his revolutionary charisma. She’s part of the faction that meet to debate ideas and offers input into his writing, all the while remaining desirable to potential lovers. Laura Elphinstone as maid Nym is equally part of the family, supporting husband and wife while becoming increasingly drawn into the household dramas with a convincing sense of her own agency. Crucially, you believe both women exist when the men are not around.

It’s a large cast that add texture to a catalogue of comic incident among London’s immigrant population, easing us between Bean and Coleman’s delightfully surreal scenarios including a gloriously modern line for a policeman who is thanked for not hitting Marx and Engels when he catches them urinating in Soho Square, saying he’s been on a course. Interestingly, the family use German accents when speaking to someone English but the rest of the time talk in their own variations of British voices, adding to the idea of Marx as a bit of a geezer and neatly navigating the line between the perception of them as a West End foreign colony, but also that they’re just like us.

The Bridge Theatre’s opening performance is, then, a very entertaining night at the theatre and Hytner’s smooth direction ensures that the 2.5 hour run time doesn’t seem enough. It’s a bold and significant decision to christen this new space with a fresh play rather than a well-known classic, but one that pays-off handsomely. And with tickets from as little as £15, the trip to Tower Bridge is all the more worthwhile. Bean and Coleman will irrevocably alter your idea of Karl Marx with this charmingly cartoony comic caper; Communist economic theory has never been this much fun!

Young Marx is at the Bridge Theatre until 31 December and will be broadcast by NT Live on 7 December. Tickets start at £15. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1


Twelfth Night – National Theatre

twelfth-night-national-theatre

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


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