As with many of Shakespeare’s comedies, a ship trying unsuccessfully to survive a wild thunderous storm is how it all gets started. Thrown into the waves are two siblings, one sister and one brother, almost identical in form, age, and charm. Separated from one another in the currents, they individually and valiantly try to make their way in this new world where they have washed ashore. “What country, friend, is this“, the shipwrecked Viola says, charmingly portrayed by the very game Tamara Lawrance (2017 BBC’s television film King Charles III,). “This is Illyria, lady“, she is told, and with those simple words, the turntable set of majestic stairs spins, bringing forth new opportunities, complications, and most importantly, love most complicated. Filled with frivolity, zest, and musical charm, director Simon Godwin finds every ounce of fun he can within the gender fluidity of the roundabout play. It shifts and exposes all the silliness and wit within this classic comedy of errors and misrepresentations, disguised under a magnificently constructed modern take and staircase, as rich in subtext as it is well-spoken and performed.
Designer Soutra Gilmour has created a visually arresting white stairway that reaches up to heaven. Collapsing and opening up like a birthday card, the magnificent structure showcases ingenious set-pieces hidden within that deliver multiply areas of jest, delight, and intrigue. A starlit party-space is revealed, utilized for wild booze-infused partying by many, but specifically for Sir Toby, drunkenly and beautifully portrayed by the velvet jacket wearing Tim McMullan (The Globe’s As You Like It), and the ridiculously inept Sir Andrew, devilishly and comically played by the wonderful Daniel Rigby (Crucible’s Frost/Nixon), who are reluctantly joined by the fantastic Niky Wardley’s Olivia’s gentlewoman Maria for mischief and merriment. Sir Toby teases his friend deviously to keep the well-off man close by, mainly to buy him drinks, but masking his intent behind the hopeful idea that he might win the favor of Sir Toby’s niece. the beautiful and well situated Orsino. That’s not likely to happen, as Olivia, spritely and smartly portrayed by the joyous Phoebe Fox (Ivo van Hove’s A View From the Bridge) is both in mourning for the loss of her brother and father, and hotly pursued by the wealthy Orsino, a handsome playboy, lovingly portrayed by the wonderfully charming Oliver Chris (National’s One Man, Two Guvnors). She has no interest in this somewhat lovable and privileged gent, who’s all about fast cars and prophesying love, even when it’s pretty clear he wouldn’t know love if it was standing right before his very eyes, somewhat disguised.
The adorable comedy lies in the obvious fact that Orsino, who hires young Cesario, the disguised-as-a-boy Viola, as his manservant, sends ‘him’ off to be his delivery-boy of love to Olivia, even as Orsino and Viola’s Cesario are obviously falling for one another. Olivia tries to turn the beautiful messenger away, but naturally, after listening to ‘his’ poetry and song, falls head over heels in love with the pretty young boy. Hilarity ensues. The lady is in love with the boy who really is a girl, who’s in love with the man, who says he’s in love with the lady, who’s in love with the boy. Got it? Good. And if you know anything about Shakespeare’s comedies, you know that it’s only a matter of time before Viola’s fraternal twin brother, Sebastian, who is believed to have drowned, shows up in town, genuinely believing his twin sister has died on that fateful stormy night that ignited the whole messy story. Sebastion, portrayed strongly by the handsome Daniel Ezra (BBC’s The Missing), has found lodging with his sailor man-friend, Antonio (Adam Best), who lovingly loves the young man, at the elevated and neoned Elephant Inn, an over-the-top gay hotel and disco hosted by a flamboyant drag queen that seemed wildly overly done and unnecessary, other than to make a point that is not needed to be made. The scene’s structure seems ridiculous, but not in the fun Sir Andrew kinda way, but in a forcibly pushy way that presses the sexual fluidity game over the edge. We get it, long before that scene flies up from the ground and hits us over the head as hard as Sebastion does to the equally but lovingly ridiculous Sir Andrew, poor thing.
There’s a magnificently wet and wild tiled hot tub for the wealthy and desperate Olivia to play out her hilarious seduction scene that flounders extremely well, but the true spirited fun of the whole production lies in the wonderful construct of Malvolia, a gendered twist on the uptight steward of Olivia’s. Normally he’s a wickedly fun representation of rules and formality, but here, perfectly embodied by the inventive and courageous Tamsin Greig, the acclaimed television and stage actress, who won a Laurence Olivier Award in 2007 for Much Ado About Nothing, the reconfigured steward uncovers instinctive and deadpanned humor in almost every moment on stage. Greig plays it tight, giving off the appearance of a severe flavorless disciplinarian in a blunt pageboy cut as delightfully easily as she scolds and plays with the audience during the letter reading scene. “Naughty audience members” is all one can say through tears of laughter, from the onlookers and us. Contempt jabs out of her tight lips continuously, particularly when describing Orsino’s manservant as being of “mankind”. It’s brilliantly savage, clearly laying the beautifully orchestrated groundwork of the besotted employee, sick in love with her feminine boss. Her yellow cross-gartered transformation is the one point that feels a bit overly ripe, but it quickly shifts focus to the disturbing over-the-top punishment of the tightly wound up steward. Greig wins in the end by showing Malvolia as a woman destroyed, sitting on the steps feeling the shame of a woman whose sense of identity has been pulled apart and played with, solely for sporting jest and simple revenge against her character.
The gender fluidity mode is dynamically incorporated into the gender confusion of the text, including the casting of Doon Mackichan (Royal Court’s ‘Jumpy’) as the feisty fool Feste. Singing and dancing about, showing off her skills and her wit at every chance, the eclectic figure presented doesn’t quite fit in with the rest of the world Godwin has crafted, yet she doesn’t disturb the playfulness of the staging either, mainly because of her skill. The production sings forth with joyful hilarity at every rotation, completely captivating the crowd. Twelfth Night is one play that is as well known to me as any of the other classic tragedies Shakespeare has written. Fiasco did a fun and festive production, as did TFANA and the musically delicious Taub-fueled Shakespeare in the Park version. Here at the National, Godwin’s staging is as detailed and inventive as one would expect in its structural merriment. Orsino’s miraculous reaction to finding out that Cesario is really Viola is about as delicious as one can hope (thank you Oliver Chris) without being politically incorrect, but I can’t quite shake, in the finale, after all the mixed up characterizations and love affairs are sorted, that there is a troubling sadness to Malvolia’s utter personal destruction that is somewhat left unsettled and raw. The intense cruelty inflicted on the haughty servant gets somehow shrugged off by all, although not so easily discarded in Olivia’s caring face. But Greig manages to gather herself up and find some reconciliation in her physical form as the mighty staircase does it’s final spin to a gay musical score. “If music be the fruit of love, play on” and on. That’s a theme one wants to implore the National Theatre after streaming this Twelfth Night. So donate here if you can, cause we certainly want this magnificent theatre company to continue to deliver us more joyful frolicsome renditions of Shakespeare’s beloved comedies.