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FringeReview UK 2017

Twelfth Night

National Theatre, London

Genre: Classical and Shakespeare, Comedy, Mainstream Theatre, Theatre

Venue: National Theatre, Oliver


Low Down

Simon Godwin’s Twelfth Night re-genders a play already famed for gender and sexual fluidity. Tamsin Greig centres this re-framed whirligig as Malvolia. The Ollie’s revolve throws up Soutra Gilmour’s Magic Roundabout of a pyramid, a set of diagonal walls from a central apex serving as a ship’s prow in the opening storm as the two sets of steps split to Radio 4 warnings then melts into the first of James Farncombe’s violet and turquoise lighting effects. Michael Bruce’s music is so good you resent it being cut.


Simon Godwin’s Twelfth Night echoes Charles I’s signposting on his copy of the First Folio: ‘Malvolio’ he noted against the play’s title. Echoes but not of course, exactly, with Tamsin Greig centring this re-framed whirligig. Malvolia – you don’t need to be told even though you are – even more involves Viola and pertinently Olivia in this re-gendered production heightening the play’s sexual sashaying. Their names phonetically entwined imprison and release themselves in a licensed moment of misrule. Semi-detached Feste too is drawn into a vortex of performative identity.


Vortex it is. The Olivier’s revolve throws up Soutra Gilmour’s Magic Roundabout of a pyramid, a set of diagonal walls from a central apex serving as a ship’s prow in the opening storm as the two sets of steps split to Radio 4 warnings then melts into the first of James Farncombe’s violet and turquoise lighting effects. Vortex because the overall segmenting of interiors effects pure Deco with a whiff of Design For Living. Exterior walls, buzz-ins, a fountain courtyard or alternatively refitted with a miniature swimming pool; a sumptuous glass-panelled drawing room attests Olivia’s retro living. At one point we’re open to the stars, late on there’s tableaux of frozen departures. One extraordinary scene, The Elephant, is something else altogether. It’s a perpetual La Ronde of consequences, or as someone else points out, whirligig.


Not only gender but period seems volitional. Oliver Chris’s breezy Orsino comes wooing in an L Reg (so 1972) vintage MG Sprite, replete with jazz trio (Hannah Lawrence on sax memorably blowing). It’s an effecting scene since Michael Bruce’s music is so good you resent it being cut. Chris can project moody rich boy, but melancholy in this production is a selective black dog; it settles on some but is too much at heel.


Phoebe Fox’s Olivia conveys her mourning like a silken black wrap, partly diaphanous, suggesting the woman peeping into a world, almost ready for the startled desire she feels as Tamara Lawrence’s sparky Cseario comes as Orsino’s wooing Second, since sparring’s her enforced second nature.


Whereas Fox gradually then suddenly throws of her parquet dignity, Lawrence is seen first de-Viola-ing herself then bonding with Chris’s Orsino through a boxing bout. You almost wonder why she can’t answer Aguecheek confidently later on. Lawrence isn’t called to project the inwardness the part can call up; perhaps that’s drawn elsewhere. Daniel Ezra’s Sebastian haloes a bright warmth suggesting why Adam Best’s avuncular Antonio falls for him – a contrast of simmering melancholy and sharp rebuke. If Ezra’s a little taller than Lawrence, a clever trope on stereotyping suggests why the twins are taken for each other. So much so that in his final speech Chris takes Ezra’s Sebastian for Lawrence’s Cesario/Viola whom he’s finally snogged (Lawrence’s delicious sexual response a signature he shouldn’t have mistaken when he tries it on her brother). We’re given moments along the way for Orsino’s sexual confusion to register, suggesting it might outlast the play.


Olivia’s household command is a nice obverse – even to a suite of waiting women in Elizabethan ruffs (so all the ensemble’s given a moment). It certainly contrasts with Fox pushing Lawrence into her swimming pool having supplied bronze swimming trunks and herself a cerise bathing suit. A baffled sexuality contrasts her poise in dealing with Malviolia’s in all its forms.


Greig’s opening ‘mankind’ referring to Ceasrio snickers out the first syllable in utter contempt. In a world of women Greig’s discomfort at dealing with the menfolk is palpable. Rebecca’s Mrs Danvers with a black fringe, Greig edges around human detritus as if it were something an underling should scoop up. Her slinking around doors to catch vowels of laughter as she spits consonants is both comic and disturbing.


Greig’s great scene is undoubtedly the set-piece of the planted letter. As she aspirates out of her element (that word elsewhere deemed outworn) into a rictus of smiling both her shed Puritanism and deep desire writhe for mastery, as if in shedding one skin she’s uncomfortable in what she’s found. Her plashing about soaked through in the fountain itself marks transparent revelation. Uneasy laughter is nothing to her appearance in a clown’s white garb topping yellow cross-garters singing her love Chicago-like to a startled Olivia. It’s not wholly believable, but takes Malvolia somewhere Greek in performative epiphany. Her extremes mark the first intimations of the terrible, defining this production.


Elsewhere the temperature’s lower but the pace more agile. Tim McMullan’s Toby Belch exudes ravaged handsomeness and an sprightliness to snare Niky Wardley’s pert Maria, someone who somewhat resembles Fox – often an attribute of such servants. McMullan’s sprite is dissolute but not dissolved, nimble to catch Wardley’s quicksilver pranking; they form a natural, believable couple, even to Maria’s infamous likening to a beagle.


Daniel Rigby’s teddy-enfolding Andrew Aguecheek is similarly youthful, here traditionally foolish rather than afflicted, with an affecting line in hurt bewilderment, so his contemptuous dismissal is the more pained. It defines his life, indeed he’s framed at the end suitcased waiting for a train that typically never arrives. Both men sport pink tints in their suits. And that’s the clue: Aguecheek’s in love with Belch, Olivia a mere pretext. There’s a startled kiss. It’s then that Belch perhaps decides on his own sexual course.


Imogen Doel’s Fabia brings a gamine individuality to the jesting troupe. Feste’s identity in Doon Mackichan brings songs to life that might (it’s suggested) been meant for the boy playing Viola. Mackichan’s memorable, though somehow seems even more removed from the action than normal – there’s not a place rationally or irrationally shaped for her; one feels there should be. Her excusing herself for the ‘laughter’ at Malvolia is itself left a little marooned – the words here need an imaginative direction to round them. As for other singers, The Elephant’s the one place Antonio might have felt at home in Illyria, being a fluidly gendered gay bar with a singer performing To Be Or Not To Be – enormous fun and perfectly OTT.


Elsewhere there’s suggestively avuncular work from James Wallace as Captain and Priest, and Emmanuel Kojo’s Curio, Brad Morrison’s Valentine with mute and musical ensembles. But the eternal revolve brings in conclusions with enough space to register dismay, disbelief and delirium. Fox’s Olivia confronted with twins flinches into shuddering offence; again, like Orsino, she feels sexually cheated or confused. The twins’ warmth melts opposition but it’s Greig again who pilloried as a dupe becomes a pillar of crushed dreams, and effects one more startling change.


As the tableaux draw away, we’re left with Aguecheek, the released Antonio, Malvolia, making their way through January, Suicide Month; Mackichan’s droll dispatch enunciates though doesn’t quite enact the rain and umbrellas suddenly, touchingly donned. The only caveat with this predominantly youthful cast is that January’s chilly ivy hasn’t pricked more fingers. But the ground’s shifted.