by William Shakespeare
Directed by Simon Godwin
Designed by Soutra Gilmour
Music by Michael Bruce
Olivier Theatre, National Theatre
Friday 10th March 2017, 19.30
Adam Best – – Antonio
Oliver Chris – Duke Orsino
Claire Cordier – ensemble
Imogen Doel – Fabia
Mary Doherty- ensemble
Ammar Duffus – officer
Daniel Ezra – Sebastian
Phoebe Fox – Olivia
Tamsin Greig – Malvolia
Whitney Kehinde – servant
Emmanuel Kojj – Curio
Tamara Lawrence – Viola
Andrew Macbean – ensemble
Doon Mackichan – Feste
Tim McMullen – Sir Toby Belch
Brad Morrison- Valentine
Daniel Rigby – Sir Andrew Aguecheek
Imogen Slaughter- ensemble
James Wallace – Captain / Priest
Niky Wardley- Maria
MD, piano, accordion – Dan Jackson
guitars – Jon Gingell
kit /percussion – Martin Briggs
bass – Nicola Davenport
woodwind – Hannah Lawrence
Malvolia (Tamsin Greig) and Olivia (Phoebe Fox)
2017 is the year of Twelfth Night, even more than 2016 was the year of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. When it comes to choosing Shakespeare’s finest comedy, you’re either a Twelfth Night person (Michael Billington, Peter Hall) or a Dream person. My companion and I are firmly in the Dream camp.
The National Theatre gets its Twelfth Night in first, with The Globe doing the play in the summer, and The Royal Shakespeare Company in the autumn. The Watermill Theatre get their version in second, with a long tour. Two of our three best-known theatres tend to do the same play in a year, but all three is unusual. Not only that, but the big USP on this one is casting Tamsin Greig as Malvolia. Guess what? The Globe have announced a female Malvolio (no name change) too. Gender switching is becoming the norm. There are two types … a woman playing a male character without further explanation (or vice versa), or switching a male character to become a female one (or vice versa, not that it ever happens that way around). This is the latter. The Globe authentic practices version five years ago had an all-male cast with Viola played by Mark Rylance, so it does cut both ways.
Twelfth Night productions tend to “star” Malvolio(a) as here. It’s supposedly one of the shortest lead parts in the canon, and the two best versions I’ve seen were the Michael Grandage version in 2008 (starring Derek Jacobi as Malvolio) and the Globe / Apollo authentic practices one (starring Stephen Fry as Malvolio). Significantly, in both versions, the role of Olivia (Indira Vharma in 2008, Mark Rylance in 2012) was what I remembered most. I found some 1950s reviews that focus on Sir Toby Belch as the “star”, though in every production I’ve seen, Sir Andrew Aguecheek is far funnier. Peter Hall said Feste was the most important character in the play. While we’re quoting opinions, Michael Billington, who had seen the play forty times by the time he wrote “101 Greatest Plays” in which he includes Twelfth Night, puts Peter Hall’s 1960 version as one of the best.
Way back in 1966 Peter Hall also said:
There are three dangerous traditions in the play. Malvolio is by custom played by the leading actor. But the star in this role cannot help playing for sympathy, and even if he wishes to avoid it, the public will insist on giving it. A sympathetic Malvolio raises questions which should never be asked. We must still laugh at his final exit. The play only works if a brilliant actor can play the part in order to be completely detested, laughed at, and finally understood.
( Hall’s other two dangerous traditions are playing Olivia as too old, and Sir Andrew as too effeminate).
Well, Malvolia and the gender switch dominates reviews of this one, and Tamsin Greig is such a wonderful comic actor, that she justifies the switch on that alone.
Feste (Doon Mackichan) and Malvolia (Tamsin Greig)
Regular readers may remember that Episodes is my favourite TV comedy of the last decade. She is the schoolmarm / prison warden from hell in black culottes and rigid hair style. Her letter scene, straight to audience, milked every possible nuance and laugh from the letter and her range of expressions. She tries to alleviate her stress with a bit of tai chi. Her yellow cross gartered stockings were topped by a Pierrot costume, which she removes to reveal a swimsuit with nipple tassels. And yes, they are electrified.
Phoebe Fox is a young, pretty, sparky Olivia, full of verve, and ticks Peter Hall’s second box. Mark Rylance knows a lead role when he sees one, and he’s played Olivia twice. This is the third time I’ve come out thinking Olivia both the best role AND the best performance of the night. Against great accomplished comic actors playing Malvolia, Orsino, Sir Andrew and Feste, that is some achievement.
Andrew Aguecheek (Daniel Rigby) and Maria (Niky Wardley)
L to R: Sir Toby Belch (Tim McMullen), Feste (Doon Mackichan), Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Daniel Rigby)
Daniel Rigby does a largish Andrew Aguecheek who is funny without any mincing about, nor being tall and skinny. Ticks the third box. I’ll add another virtue, and that is that Tim McMullan’s Sir Toby Belch is a permanently drunken rock musician in type, of normal build, at last not a waddling fatty Falstaff. The scene where he describes dance types to Sir Andrew (all of which are obsolete dances) usually sounds like sheer waffle, but here with demonstrations, it made sense. Both demonstrated with aplomb.
Duke Orsini (Oliver Chris) and Viola (as Cesario) – male bonding
The twins, Viola and Sebastian are twinned in clothes and by both being Afro-Carribbean. The programme points out that Viola is never named until right at the end of the play, so perhaps we should think of her as her imitation boy, Cesario, first. One criticism is that Sebastian has a slight African tinge to the accent and Viola has not. It is usual to mark them with an identical accent. Shakespearean lines were not his forte either. Tamara Lawrence as Viola works superbly direct to audience, but then most of the cast do. She does boyish perfectly, and is as good as you can get in incorporating modern teen gestures into Shakesperean lines.
Duke Orsino (Oliver Chris) + 1972 TR6 and scooter. Hannah Lawrence on saxophone.
Oliver Chris is very funny as Orsino, as always, though the first “If music be the food of love” speech was cut about and interrupted for laughs, possibly inappropriately, though I laughed along with everyone else. One has to add that Hannah Lawrence’s live saxophone on stage makes this scene. His gazing at the revelations in the final scene are brilliant. The scene where he realises he fancies Cesario lacked the poignancy and surprise it can have.
Doon Mackichan was in a glorious Abigail’s Party on tour a few years ago. She is Feste, in rust coloured tights, glittery boots and shorts. Having a female Feste makes not a jot of difference, and with a female Malvolio to mock, it works better with Feste as a woman. She’s a major singer too, and ends the whole show with a song as the stage revolves, showing a series of tableaux. The lonely Sir Andrew with suitcase had me laughing. The teddy bear was OTT.
I’ve never seen the blindfolded, mad Malvolia with the Fool playing the doctor scene work. It’s intrinsically a poor scene to me. It still doesn’t work here, though I’m sure no one could play it better than Tamsin Greig and Doon Mackichan.
L to R: Fabia, Cesario, Sir Toby Belch, Sir Andrew Aguecheek (with fountain)
The instant star of the show, as so often at the National, is the set design. It’s a series of triangular shapes on the revolve stage. At the beginning it’s the prow of a ship in a storm, but it can be flight of steps full on, both flights combined, or open into Olivia’s modern glass-walled house (the set designer must know Poole, gradually filling with them), be a brick walled street, frame a garden. Be The Elephant gay disco bar. We get a fountain. We get a hot tub. It works so well throughout, allowing rapid changes, walking through it from one scene into the next. The bright costumes for some, black for others is first rate. The introduction of a swimming costume scene round the hot tub is funny, as is the running joke about the sexy bronze swimming trunks that Olivia tries to press on Cesario, then later on Sebastian.
Olivia (Phoebe Fox) and Cesario (Tamara Lawrence) in the hot tub
There is always a “loadsa money” aspect to the National Theatre that mildly disturbs me. Did they need a Triumph TR6 and an accompanying scooter too? Did they need a whole elaborate set of costumes and a piano for the transgender disco scene? Did they need the transgender disco scene at all? Was the rain at the end with umbrellas for all but poor Malvolia gratuitous? (Feste didn’t have an umbrella but was out of the rain). There is a “Have rain machine / Use it” aspect which also appears at the RSC in Stratford and at Chichester. It’s a hell of a lot of fuss for one effect. It looks really good to have five servants in sunglasses surrounding Olivia when Cesario arrives seeking to establish which one is her, but you can do it with one. I am as far as you can get from Grotowski’s “Towards A Poor Theatre” but sometimes the NT’s consumption of resources crosses a line of “conspicuous” that even the RSC doesn’t reach.
I ponder why there were so many three star press reviews … I’m a four, my companion a three (she adds”at the most”). The gender switch didn’t alter the play. Malvolia’s pash for Olivia was played so well, it felt that was the way it was meant. Great actors, but production points did overwhelm at times, and the broad comedy of having a drag queen singing Hamlet’s To Be Or Not To Be soliloquy got the chuckles but the tender aspects of the play got swamped again and again by playing for effects. We’re usually the ones cheering when Shakespeare is played broadly, but here we felt a lack of flow and a lost dimension as a result. Yes, Malvolia splashing in the fountain was hilarious. Yes, Cesario being pulled into the hot tub was hilarious too, but something was lost. I didn’t feel the “Aah!” Factor when everyone got together at the end. If it allows the tenderness and emotion to emerge, you should feel that.
WHAT THE PAPERS SAID
Ben Dowell, Radio Times, *****
Michael Billington, Guardian ****
Susannah Clapp, Obsever ****
Domenic Cavendish, Daily Telegraph ***
Christopher Hart, Sunday Times ***
Natasha Tripney, The Stage ***
Paul Taylor, The Independent ***
LINKS ON THIS BLOG
Twelfth Night RSC 2012 Jonathan Slinger as Malvolio
Twelfth Night – Apollo 2012 Mark Rylance (Olivia), Stephen Fry (Malvolio)
Twelfth Night- ETT 2014, Brighton Theatre Royal, Hugh Ross (Malvolio)
Hamlet, RSC 2016
Richard II, The Globe 2015
Two Gentlemen of Verona, RSC, 2014
The Beaux Stratagem, National Theatre, 2015
Man & Superman, National Theatre, 2014
Candida, Theatre Royal, Bath, 2013
Women on The Verge of A Nervous Breakdown, Playhouse, London, 2015
A View From The Bridge, Young Vic, 2014 (Catherine)
One Man Two Guv’nors 2013