This was a huge amount of rollicking good fun that (despite the casting of a female Malvolia) didn’t try to make Twelfth Night carry anything more than the tale set down by Shakespeare and do it as well as possible.
The whole production had this gloriously (slightly) over-the-top vibe – characters larger than life, colours brighter, emotions bigger – everything you need to make the bonkers story work. It used the rotating stage of the Olivier theatre to great effect, in conjunction with a beautiful pyramid stage that unfolded and refolded to give a series of geometric, greenhouse spaces – the whole play felt a bit like it was taking place in a giant geodesic terrarium.
If you don’t know the plot of Twelfth Night, good luck to you (I don’t feel up to explaining it – but here’s the cast trying to explain it in one minute!) but one of its great strengths is the parity (in terms of “screen-time”, quality of writing, depth of characterisation) with which the different story strands are treated, and the way in which they all interact with and affect each other (unlike in As You Like It, where the various forest dwellers only seem to exist for Rosaline to meet in isolation). To pull it off you need a great ensemble cast – and naturally that’s what the National had assembled.
Firstly, Daniel Ezra and Tamara Lawrance were an incredibly well-matched pair as Sebastian and Viola respectively – individually great, when they were on stage together you could see the resonances so clearly in terms of gestures as well as appearance (and kudos to the costume team – they both appeared the same height – my most common bugbear). Tamara Lawrance (who was a ray of light in the unspeakable Unreachable when I saw it last year) is my one to watch – she managed to tap-dance on the knife-edge of sorrow and humour which is the basis for the play.
Oliver Chris was a magnificent, pining, Orsino, petulantly in love with Olivia and absolutely, resolutely ignoring any possibility he might be falling for Cesario. He also had a very natty taste in suits and a lovely Triumph, but they are incidental to the plot… Phoebe Fox’s Olivia was gloriously maladroit, constantly discombobulating herself (as well as everyone around her) with her unexpected passion. The scene with Olivia and Cesario in the hot tub* was a comedy masterpiece**.
In Olivia’s household, Daniel Rigby’s Sir Andrew Aguecheek was a pompous dandy with a questionable line in tweed, while Tim McMullan’s undeniably louche Sir Toby Belch had a definite whiff of the ageing ‘60s rocker about him. Imogen Doel’s Fabia and Niky Wardley’s Maria both seemed only too happy to be led astray by him, and I’m not sure I can blame them! Around and through all the storylines danced Doon Mackichan’s Feste, a fabulous free-spirited agent of chaos.
The star of the show – according to the publicity – was Tamsin Greig as Malvolia. And while the production was far too even-handed to let her steal the whole thing, she did stand out from the impressive crowd around her. The production did not go out of its way to highlight that this was a woman, and that her love for Olivia was therefore potentially more transgressive – it just lined up the parallels with Orsino/Cesario and let them speak for themselves. Greig really knocked it out of the park for me as a buttoned up, closeted character finally letting rip, with disastrous consequences***. She captured your sympathy even as you marvelled at her hubris; you laughed at her and with her at the same time as she read Maria’s letter****. The costuming was a particular delight – I don’t think I shall ever see a finer set of cross gartering. It also seemed to me to be a perfect combination of part and actor – Tamsin Greig had the depth to capture Malvolia’s full range from tyranny, through arrogance, joy, and despair, to a flat cold anger. Her “I’ll be revenged upon the whole pack of you” sent shivers down the spine.
And yet I keep coming back to Oliver Chris’s perfect comedic timing, Adam Best’s shabby, great-hearted Antonio, Daniel Rigby’s Aguecheek walking off with the massive teddy bear with which Orsino had tried to woo Olivia. The thought and attention to detail which had gone into every character (not just the headliner) and every action, and yet the light-hearted insouciance with which it was carried off. That’s what really made it marvellous.
A footnote (aside from the usual footnotes): I saw this production the day that Tim Pigott-Smith died. Oliver Chris announced his death after the curtain call, to audible gasps from the audience and gave a moving tribute to him. The two of them have worked together closely – as Charles and William in Charles III at the Almeida, in the West End, on Broadway and most recently in film. For him to give the quality of comic performance I saw when he must have been reeling from the news himself is a testament to his skill as an actor and something I feel sure Tim Pigott-Smith would have been proud of.
* I cannot possibly do this justice in the explanation. Just let your mind boggle.
** On a related note – why is every production so keen on slopping the water around these days? There was a hot tub here, rain in The Winter’s Tale, Ophelia in a full bathtub… Is it just since lighting moved to LEDs and it all got a bit safer that producers have gone full-on water baby?
*** Seen as a coming-out story, what follows for Malvolia is particularly horrific – but the production didn’t try to pretend that it wasn’t.
**** She and Oliver Chris played the only two characters to address the audience directly – a device used sparingly but to devastating humorous effect.