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Twelfth Night starring Tamsin Greig – review round-up

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Glenda Jackson as King Lear? Harriet Walter as Prospero? Michelle Terry as Henry V? And now Tamsin Greig as Malvolio? It’s almost as if everyone has finally realised that women can play traditionally male roles just fine after all. Almost.

Greig’s casting – as the rechristened Malvolia – is the inevitable talking point of Simon Godwin’s Twelfth Night, which is in rep on the National’s Olivier stage until May, but the production boasts another gender-bended role too; embracing the play’s cross-dressing confusion, Doon Mackichan has been cast as the Fool Feste.

The National’s last voyage into Shakespeare territory – Polly Findlay’s As You Like It – was received with lukewarm praise back in November 2016. Does Godwin’s Twelfth Night fill the notoriously cavernous Olivier where As You Like It could not? Does Greig serve up a Malvolia worthy of her yellow-stockings? Or one detestable for all the wrong reasons? Is this a Twelfth Night to remember or an evening to forget?

Fergus Morgan rounds up the reviews.

Twelfth Night – Cross-gartered and cross-gendered

The day may come when a piece of gender-fluid casting is not the first thing discussed in all reviews, but, alas, it is not this day. Greig has award-winning form in Shakespearean comedies – she earned an Olivier back in 2007 for her Beatrice in Marianne Elliot’s Royal Shakespeare Company Much Ado. Is she likely to win a second here as Countess Olivia’s sneering steward?

Well, you wouldn’t bet against it. Natasha Tripney (The Stage, ★★★) calls her Malvolia “a masterstroke of casting”, heaping praise on “a performance of great comic skill.”

For Henry Hitchings (Evening Standard, ★★★★), she is “brilliant in the part”, displaying “wit and immense poise” as she “conveys acres of disdain” with mere glances, while for Philip Fisher (British Theatre Guide), she is “the best Malvolia that one is ever likely to see.”

“She looks like a mix of Moliere’s Tartuffe and Roald Dahl’s Miss Trunchbull”, describes Michael Billington (Guardian, ★★★★), “a severe disciplinarian with a pageboy haircut and a penchant for martial arts.” For Rosemary Waugh (Exeunt) she resembles “a mixture of a buttoned-up governess crossed with a Nick Knight photo for Yohji Yamamoto in the 1980s”.

Greig can nail the laughs then, but can she locate the boundless pathos that makes Malvolio – or, rather, Malvolia – one of Shakespeare’s most arrestingly human creations.

For Libby Purves (TheatreCat, ★★★★) she can. Lured into wearing yellow stockings – and whirling nipple tassles – in pursuit of Olivia’s love, then humiliated by all, she is “all wrecked dignity and unbearable grief”, according to Purves, “a bully turned victim whose collapse neatly exposes the nasty futility of all comeuppances”.

Claire Allfree (Metro, ★★★★) thinks so too. “When she thinks her mistress, Olivia, loves her”, opines Allfree, “it’s like watching rain fall on a withered flower. But when she realises she’s been the victim of a cruel joke, it’s like watching a whipped dog curl up in a hole.”

Greig doesn’t impress everyone, though. Billington isn’t quite convinced by her sudden, giddy change from austere authoritarian to yellow-stockinged lunatic, and Quentin Letts (Daily Mail, ★★★★) thinks she falls back on her “amusing but well-worn” trademarks too much, but it must be noted, he’s in a minority of one in that camp.

So does it matter, having a gal playing a guy? Evidently not. For Billington, Greig “makes instant sense” of the gender-swap, and for Holly Williams (What’sOnStage, ★★★★), the rehashed sexual relationships feel “barely worth remarking on.”

“Throughout”, Williams writes, “the sexual and gender fluidity is presented with a ‘yeah obvs’ matter-of-fact-ness.”

Andrzej Lukowski (Time Out, ★★★★) concurs, observing that Godwin’s production neatly sidesteps any lingering doubts about repressed lesbian stereotypes by portraying Illyria “so queer friendly generally, that it doesn’t ever feel like it’s laughing at her sexuality.”

But there’s always one, isn’t there? Dominic Cavendish (Telegraph, ★★★), although largely positive in his review, has subsequently aired his concerns that such gender-fluid casting might threaten the future of the “great, male actor”.

Perhaps it’s best to take the Williams approach here. It’s a comment of such monumental crassness and conceit, barely worth remarking on.

Twelfth Night – The whole pack of them

But, as Lukowski acknowledges, “it’s certainly far more than the Tamsin Greig show”.

According to him, “Godwin takes Shakespeare’s mistaken identity comedy, spices it up with with a bit of sexual fluidity, then chucks in a bunch of great comedy character actors and leaves them to go nuts.”

Aside from Malvolio-turned-Malvolia, Mackichan’s jesting Feste has also been gender-swapped, and a host of characters have been doused with sexual ambiguity.

The critics are in two minds over Mackichan. Ben Dowell (Radio Times, ★★★★★) is entirely taken with her “colourful clown”, applauding the way she “brings to light the darkness behind the verbal flights of fancy”, while Purves finds her “one of the most effective Fools I’ve seen in years.”

Others are less convinced. Letts finds her “lightweight”, “miscast and misdirected”, and lacking the requisite “acidity”, while Alexandra Coghlan (The Arts Desk, ★★★★) thinks Godwin’s vision for her is “unclear”, with “good songs but little else.”

The rest of the cast find plaudits somewhere or other, though. Every critic has their horse, every performer their champion. Hitchings opts for Tim McMullan’s “gloriously louche” Toby Belch, Ann Treneman (Times, ★★★★) favours Daniel Rigby’s “incredibly camp” Andrew Aguecheek, while Billington cheers for Phoebe Fox’s Olivia, “a spirited figure secretly jiving in her mourning dress and helplessly drawn to Tamara Lawrance’s equally passionate, uninhibited Viola.”

There’s even time for Marianka Swain (Broadway World, ★★★★) to big up Daniel Ezra’s “agreeable” Sebastian and Adam Best’s “ardent” Antonio, the flicker of sexual attraction between these two yet another of Godwin’s flirtations with convention.

Twelfth Night – A whirligig of time

Godwin is no stranger to Shakespeare. Last year he directed Paapa Essiedu in Hamlet, and the year before that he took the reigns of Richard II with David Tennant.

According to Tripney, “he’s great at big comedy set-pieces”, and by all accounts, he’s delivered them here. And then some.

“In general”, chuckles Williams, “Godwin’s production is a hoot. The stage is filled with “daft dancing and fighting, strutting and wooing.”

“There is much drunkenness, tomfoolery and messing about in swimming pools”, concurs Tripney. “There’s also a scene with a working fountain, and a car – it’s like Godwin’s determined to use all of the Olivier’s toys.”

But in among the mirth-filled mayhem, has Godwin lost sight of something essential?

Letts thinks that, for all it’s frivolity, the production “lacks romantic magic”, Swain similarly considers “the romances feel a tad undercooked”, while Allfree observes that “what Godwin gains in entertainment value he loses in poetic quality.”

“All I missed was the element of reflective melancholy”, wails Billington, while Coghlan makes the same point, but looks on the bright side: “with everyone having so much fun it hardly seems to matter.”

Soutra Gilmour’s revolving, eclectic design is loved by some but loathed by others. For Billington it’s “massively ingenious”, but for Allfree it’s “frustratingly placeless”.

And where exactly is this Illyria? Who knows?

“The set takes the form of a great pyramid that revolves to become the prow of a ship, a courtyard full of box trees, a chapel, a cell”, explains Tripney. “It marries 1960s sleekness with neat little Elizabethan touches, maids’ dresses with ruffs, a party hat doubling as a codpiece.”

Twelfth Night – Is it any good?

Godwin’s is a polished, classy production that lays the emphasis on laughs, highlights the play’s sexual ambiguity and gender fluity, but might overlook some of the piercing pathos and beguiling romanticism.

Significantly, though, the praise for Greig’s Malvolia is universal. A fine comic performer nailing one of the classic comic roles. Nothing more, nothing less.

Let’s let Lukowski have the final word: “it’s one of those Shakespeare revivals that reminds you that with a crack cast and a lot of love, a 400-plus year-old comedy can still deliver the LOLs.”