When I've seen a Shakespeare play dozens of times, studied it at school and acted in a student production, there's always a risk of seeing it once too often. Will it really be funny when I see it for the umpteenth time? At last night's early preview of the National Theatre's new Twelfth Night, I found myself laughing out loud -- and so did the rest of the audience in the Olivier theatre. Make no mistake, Simon Godwin's production is going to be a big hit.
Tamsin Greig, transformed with a single character stroke from Malvolio to Malvolia, generates most of the laughter. It makes perfect sense to centre the play on the unhappy outsider who walks out of the general rejoicing promising to take revenge. Declan Donnellan did the same with his much darker Russian Cheek by Jowl production at the Barbican a few years ago. Greig starts the play dressed in severe monochrome, with a severe white blouse and a long black divided skirt. She patrols Olivia's very modern mansion like a Puritan avenger, fixing a single small beer bottle with an icy stare and complaining that Sir Toby and his friends have turned it into an ale-house. Buried somewhere under her black bobbed wig there lurks something intense; could it be a driving lesbian passion for her mistress the lady Olivia? Godwin uses the revolving stage to insert a very short scene in which Malvolia's secret desires are hinted at.
Along with As You Like It, this is Shakespeare's most gender-bending play. If one accepts, as Shakespeare does, that gender is often fluid and desire is ambiguous, then it doesn't make too much difference whether Malvolio/Malvolia is played by a man or a woman. Greig's performance is a tour de force, which is no surprise. She won an Olivier award for her playing of Beatrice in the RSC's Much Ado about Nothing and has superb comic gifts, which are used to the full in the scene where she discovers the fake love letter. This is one of the best things Shakespeare ever wrote, but it's still possible for directors and actors to muck it up by inserting too much stage business. A garden scene always benefits from a bit of water spraying around (Greg Doran used the same trick when he staged an excellent Sicilian Much Ado a decade or so ago) but here it is rightly never allowed to distract from the words. There's also a swimming pool scene with Olivia and Viola that provides a nice comic splash. Nick Hytner's Much Ado with Simon Russell Beale and Zoe Wanamaker used the same pool trick on the same stage in 2007.
When Malvolia finally appears cross-gartered in her yellow stockings, descending a Hollywood-style marble staircase like a burlesque artiste and casting aside stray pieces of costume, the result is electrifying comedy. What gets lost in this solo act, however, is Olivia's reaction. There's also a problem (at least for me) in the way Greig casts aside all traces of the Malvolia we saw in the earlier scenes. I think the comedy of this scene should be grounded in the fact that Malvolia/Malvolia is still the same Puritan and repressed character as before, but forced to play an unaccustomed part. Stephen Fry got this right when he played Malvolio at Shakespeare's Globe in the famous production with Mark Rylance in 2012. What we get here instead is a Malvolia who looks as though she has been spinning nipple tassles with gay abandon all her life. As with Rosalie Craig's Rosalind in the National's recent As You Like It, the audience doesn't get the sense of a character skating on thin ice and pretending to be someone else. However in the scene where Malvolia is locked up and taunted, and in the character's final appearance, Greig is very good at suggesting a character stripped bare by humiliation.
There are some other standout performances, notably Tim McMullen's Sir Toby Belch. He is not the well-rounded quaffer we are used to seeing, but a groovy long-haired middle-aged hanger-on with a hipflask who might once have seen better days as a minor rock star, or a TV personality. I can imagine him having an evening out with Jeremy Clarkson and the other aged schoolboys presenting Top Gear. McMullen always adds something special to his Shakespearean roles, and this is no exception. I also liked Phoebe Fox's flirty Olivia, who adds a new dimension to the theory that women who stick to a little black dress should not be trusted. Tamara Lawrance (last seen at the National as Ma Rainey's young girlfriend) has some excellent moments, but the UST (unresolved sexual tenson) that should be present in her scenes with Orsino is absent. Oliver Chris brings a cheery lightweight charm to Orsino, but never suggests the character's darker, obsessive side.
In this play Feste's melancholy songs should set the tone, but Doon Mackichan, while musically adept, plays the jester as just another comic character and does not explore the depths of one of Shakespeare's most interesting parts. Feste should have one foot outside the action of the play, casting a quizzical look at what the other characters are up to and acting as a bridge to the audience.
Designer Soutra Gilmour's use of the Olivier's revolve with a giant pillar at its centre is technically very smart; we get a storm scene (a bit like the opening of The Tempest) and Viola wakes up in a hospital bed asking which country she is in. . Godwin moves the fight scene in the second half from chez Olivia to a drag evening in a club called the Elephant at which a singer intones Hamlet's To Be Or Not To Be. It's well done but a bit OTT and it jars with the rest of the play. By way of comparison, Rupert Goold's Merchant of Venice set in Las Vegas had a more coherent design vision that illuminated Shakespeare's text. Illyria in this production seems curiously featureless. Is it a forgotten provincial backwater or a thriving modern place? It's never quite clear.