It is exactly one calendar month since lockdown began and watching the premieres of the National Theatre at Home programme on a Thursday evening has pretty much become standard practice. And when the broadcast happens to coincide with Shakespeare’s birthday and they are streaming Twelfth Night – well, what else are you going to do?
My first thought as the play began is that I’d misread which one it was, as it seemed like the opening of The Tempest had been drafted in – either that or it was a hangover from last week’s Treasure Island. It made for an effective start but did mean that one of the most famous opening lines in Shakespeare (“If music be the food of love, play on”) had to wait in the wings. After that things took a more conventional turn – though with a twist. In a play in which the fluidity of gender is explored it was interesting to see this picked up in the casting. In this version Malvolio and Fabian become Malvolia and Fabia and the usual male role of Feste is also regendered – perhaps that should have been Festia (?) As the mistress of the household, Olivia, has spurned the company of men so it actually makes a high degree of sense that her steward and her gardener/odd job person should be female. Feste appears to be freelance but I would say it makes very little difference what gender is assigned to the character. So, for me, that all worked.
There were also other touches which helped the text come alive – Orsino’s 40th birthday party and setting a scene around (and indeed in) a plunge pool were excellent ideas. The set – especially the staircase and the working fountain – was suitably impressive and made good use of the vast stage. However, I never found the production never really took off mainly because all the plotting and counter plotting started to become tedious – I suppose it does when you are familiar enough with the play to know what’s coming next. One particular scene that demonstrated this was the one where Feste becomes the curate, Sir Topaz – it just wasn’t funny, although it thought it was and that’s the point. If a scene has to shout “Hey, look at us, we’re doing comedy now” it simply falls flat.
Tamsin Grieg’s performance as Malvolia, however, is excellent. True her transformation from repressed puritan to sexy vamp was a mite sudden but that’s how Mr Shakespeare wrote it. The letter scene (always a highlight) showed a performer on top of her game, working the audience with precise looks and gestures and gradually building the comedy from a real place rather than just imposing some schtick (see above). And although her performance is undoubtedly a thing of joy, it also has hidden depths and these are revealed in some touching moments in the later scenes.
There is pretty solid support from the rest of the cast with a particularly strong Viola from Tamara Lawrance who, when she isn’t being rushed by the production, brings a real sense of heartache to her role. I also liked the “takes no nonsense” approach of Niky Wardley’s Maria. Doon Mackichan does what she can with Feste who, for a fool, is notoriously unfunny and she sang pleasantly enough. However, I was not enamoured of either Olivia (Phoebe Fox) or Sir Toby (Tim McMullan). The former was simply too shouty (presumably an attempt to show her panicked confusion) and the latter too one note – at least he didn’t play it as Falstaff lite. Oliver Chris playing Orsino seemed to be channelling a slightly less dense version of Stanley Stubbers from One Man Two Guvnors. What with the ever dependable and naturally comedic Daniel Rigby’s uptight Sir Andrew being somewhat similar to his Orlando Dangle from the same show I began to start fearing déjà vu had set in. The direction of Simon Godwin was solid enough though I think the production needed to make up its mind what time period it was in as it seemed to slide from 1930s jazz age (ish) to modern day (ish).
I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve seen Twelfth Night and think it is a notoriously difficult play with which to strike the right balance; this production succeeded to some extent. While it was a respectable account this one won’t particularly stay in my memory – though Tamsin Greig’s performance will. Perhaps seeing all these people running around enjoying themselves and socially interacting is, at the moment, a bit much. All the same, happy birthday Mr Shakespeare.
Production photos by Marc Brenner
Twelfth Night is available via National Theatre’s You Tube channel until April 29th . Click here
Reviews of the NT’s previously streamed production: One Man, Two Guvnors is here, Jane Eyre is here and Treasure Island is here
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