This is a dazzling and finely tuned production of Shakespeare’s comedy – a tour-de-force of invention that takes the play’s preoccupation with cross-dressing and gender slipperiness and runs with it. It has intelligence to complement the gusto and comic brio.
It’s set in a sybaritic world in the late 20th century and played out beneath a giant pyramid that revolves to reveal the full array of locales – gardens, a chapel, a cell and Olivia’s front room, with diversions to the occasional dance club and a singing drag act. The 1990s was a time when gay marriage came on the national agenda, and it is intriguing to watch extra gender inversions in a play that already has quite a few to begin with.
The steward Malvolio is now a woman, Malvolia, played by Tamsin Greig (pictured above), while Doon Mackichan is the traditionally male clown Feste (below).
Greig puts in a performance that is both fabulously funny and troublingly dark. Malvolia is, of course, in love with the lady Olivia and gulled by resentful members of the household (led by Sir Toby Belch) into believing Olivia is in love with him.
The moment when she dresses in yellow stockings and cross garters is one of the great set-pieces of Shakespearean comedy and Greig is not the kind of performer to lose this golden opportunity, wringing every possible laugh, looking splendid and adding the flourish of a whirling mini-helicopter blades onto her breasts to impress her mistress. Her asides to the audience are hilarious.
But at no stage do we lose sense of the loneliness at the heart of the pompous buttoned-up pleasure-denier; Malvolia’s sense of joy at possible companionship with Olivia and an elevation in status is deeply felt and affecting, not least when you consider that her declaration in this retelling also represents a sexual “coming out”. She ends up in a fountain – cold, drenched and with the heart-breaking declaration “I am happy” hanging pitiably in the air.
When all unravels, her closing threat “I’ll be revenged in the whole pack of you” is fused with menace as well as sadness as Malvolia is drenched in “the rain it raineth every day”; it’s a brilliantly sad inversion of the earlier scene and brings to the fore the lachrymosity and sense of loss that is at the heart of the play.
It’s also a reminder of the overall darkness and melancholy of Shakespeare’s masterpiece, which takes as its title the last day of Christmas – a time of revels, feasting and misrule but also the end of fun and joy. It is also eerily prophetic given the Puritan Revolution that was just a generation away when this play was first performed.
Mackichan’s colourful clown Feste comes replete with some gorgeous sparkly green boots. She also brings to light the darkness behind the verbal flights of fancy – the deeply affecting songs which run counter to the tomfoolery of her spoken action.
But this is no serious and solemn deconstruction of thorny and relevant issues. Director Simon Godwin is sensitive to the source text, offering a view of its world and ideas that confidently tumble down the ages (I loved the way revellers at a party scene complement Elizabethan ruffs with cool sunglasses). If anything, Godwin accents the play’s comedic elements more strongly than anything else, but never loses sight of the play’s cloudy and troubling subtext.
The main plot gives us a likable pairing of Tamara Lawrance and Daniel Ezra as Viola and Sebastian respectively (below), the separated twins whose arrival in Illyria sets everything off. Lawrence gives a lively performance and makes an accomplice of the audience in her dilemma: being a girl pretending to be the boy Cesario who is in love with a man (Orsino) who thinks she is a boy.
Oliver Chris teases out the immaturity of Orsino (pictured, bottom), first seen clutching a teddy bear as he seeks to woo Phoebe Fox’s Olivia, and not really moving beyond that despite everything that happens (this is not a criticism –it’s how I have always read him too).
Fox’s Olivia is spoilt, madammish and highly sexed (at one point she drags Cesario into a jacuzzi and is not incapable of straddling a man she fancies when he is lying prone); but she is also smart enough to display flashes of awkward self-awareness while attempting to maintain her dignity (sometimes we see her dancing alone and then catching a sense of being watched).
But it is the comic characters that are foregrounded in this production and I was particularly taken with Tim McMullan’s Toby Belch and Daniel Rigby’s Andrew Aguecheek. McMullan never lets us forget what an unpleasant character Belch is, despite his heavy drinking and air of jollity and (in this production) snazzy velvet rock-star jackets; his bullying of Aguecheek feels particularly cruel.
Rigby allows us to really sympathise with his Aguecheek, a colourfully dressed buffoon with a man bun and pink socks. Between the gags, he conveys the pain and hurt that can be inflicted on idiots like him. As with the rest of the production, the main mood is laughter – but the feeling you take away is reflective, pensive and sombre. It’s beautifully judged.
Twelfth Night is playing at the Olivier Theatre until May 17. You can book tickets here
Ben has worked as a professional journalist specialising in TV and the arts for nearly twenty years writing for Stage newspaper, Sunday Mirror and the Sunday Times, The Guardian, Evening Standard, Broadcast, Independent and the New Statesman where he wrote a column.