To reinvent or not to reinvent – that is the question contemporary directors face when dealing with the classics in general and Shakespeare in particular. With so many productions of plays like Hamlet, Hedda Gabler, As You Like It, King Lear, Othello and all the Chekhovs, the problem is how to keep this perennial repertoire fresh.
Gender bending is the current option, the most recent being Glenda Jackson’s King Lear. In the National’s rompy revival of Twelfth Night, director Simon Godwin takes the concept a step further. Whereas actresses such as Jackson, Harriet Walter (Brutus, Henry IV, Prospero) Fiona Shaw (Richard II) and Michelle Terry (Henry V) all retained the original sex of their characters, this Malvolio, played by Tamsin Greig, undergoes a complete sex change and reemerges as Malvolia.
It’s a brilliant idea, and for most of the time, Greig nails it. Wearing a severe Louise Brooks-like bob and dressed all in black, she is as devoted to her mistress Olivia as Mrs. Danvers was to Rebecca. She’s a martinet and a compulsive obsessive, who, if she thinks a piece of garden furniture is out of kilter with its surroundings by even just one centimetre, will adjust it. She practices tai chi, never smiles, and as the keeper of her mistress’s flame, is a humourless killjoy.
Yet while Greig effectively captures Malvolia’s irritating bombast, she can’t resist the occasional moment of pantomime shtick. For example, in the great scene in which she learns of Olivia’s love for her in a letter mischievously planted by Sir Toby Belch, Andrew Aguecheek and Maria, the maid-in-waiting, she conspicuously conspires with the audience in a Frankie Howerd “titter-ye-not” moment after reading a sexually ambiguous phrase in the letter. Very funny, but totally out of character. Nor was I taken with the Pierrot-type costume and spinning nipple tassels that augment the cross garters and yellow stocking she ultimately dons.
That said, I have never seen a production of Twelfth Night that more painfully expresses Shakespeare’s cruelty than in the final image of a rain-drenched Malovolia, sans bobbed wig, slowly, humiliatingly, heartbreakingly ascending a flight of stairs, destroyed and defeated. It’s the evening’s most memorable moment.
Taking his cue from the numerous mistaken sexual identities that fuel the convoluted plot, Godwin not only presents us with the first lesbian Malvolia, but the entire production is the gayest take on this timeless comedy I’ve ever seen. Homo-eroticism is mandatory, with a long and lingering same-sex kiss between Orsino and Sebastian, whom (in one of the show’s funniest sight gags) he mistakes for Viola.
Sir Toby and Andrew Aguecheek have clearly had a ding-dong at some stage of their friendship. The sailor Antonio is besotted with Sebastian, whom he rescued in the shipwreck that opens the play. And The Elephant Inn becomes a gay nightclub with a drag queen whose solo spot is a sung version of Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” soliloquy.
Godwin’s modern-dress, predominantly light-hearted approach to the text undercuts much of the play’s poetry and romantic passion. Apart from Greig, who steals every scene she’s in and is unquestionably the evening’s star attraction, there’s a throwaway frivolity that surrounds most of the other performances.
Chris Oliver’s handsome man-about-town Orsino is as flash as the car he drives and makes up in comic timing what he lacks in ardour. Tamara Lawrence is an appealing Viola/Cesario, with zest substituting for poetry. Phoebe Fox’s Olivia isn’t as alluring as she should be. Daniel Rigby, dressed in pink and wearing a man-bun, is hilarious as a camp Andrew Aguecheek. And Tim McMullan is a more dissipated than usual Sir Toby Belch. I’m not sure, though, what to make of Doon Mackichan’s female fool Feste. Dressed in tights and kinky boots it’s a curiously ill-defined performance that sits uncomfortably even in this gender-flexible outing.
Soutra Gilmour’s excellent set, comprising a dazzlingly effective staircase as well as triangular panels attached to a central pole that fan out to convey the play’s multifarious locations, dominates this revival as much as Greig’s redefining central performance. It’s a production full of eye-catching ideas and touches. But of melancholy there is little trace.