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Twelfth Night review at the National Theatre – ‘Tamsin Greig is resplendent’

Tamsin Greig and Tamara Lawrance in Twelfth Night at the National Theatre. Photo: Marc Brenner

Twelfth Night has always been a play of abandon. Characters slip on different costumes, different gender identities, they shuck off their solemnity, they let loose.

As Malvolio – here Malvolia – Tamsin Greig joins the list of women playing major Shakespearean roles. It’s a masterstroke of casting. She doesn’t just steal her scenes she starts up her own black market. Hers is a performance of great comic skill. As Olivia’s uptight steward, she has the manner of a Agatha Christie school mistress with her sensible culottes and ruler-straight hair. She walks with odd little rabbit-like steps. She stares longingly at Olivia when she sleeps. She is a figure of fun. She’s also a lesbian, and this results in some moments that skirt uneasily close to stereotype, but Greig rises above this, engaging with the audience and conveying the full extent of the hurt and humiliation that her character is subjected to.

Eventually, that is. For Simon Godwin’s production is one of two halves. Initially it lays the comedy on thick (it feels not uncoincidental that the cast feature two of the stars of One Man, Two Guvnors). There is much drunkenness, tomfoolery and messing about in swimming pools. 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.

As a director he’s great at big comedy set-pieces and so it proves here. There is a wonderfully messy booze-fuelled party scene, but there’s a heartlessness to some of the laughs, and often the tenderness and pathos of the play gets lost.

Tim McMullan’s Toby Belch, wearing too-tight jeans and Trevor Nunn’s hair, is a bit of a mean drunk and while Daniel Rigby makes an agreeably doltish Aguecheek, with his man-bun and loud suit, he’s something of a one-note idiot. The relationship between Daniel Ezra’s Sebastian and Adam Best’s Antonio has a sexual edge but it feels sidelined. Oliver Chris’ Orsino also feels a bit peripheral.

Tamara Lawrance – one of many brilliant things about Anthony Neilson’s Unreachable – makes a compelling Viola, dressed up as the brother she believes dead, passing for male, lusting and being lusted after, she is funny and sweet and subtle in a production that is often blunt.

There’s fluidity to Soutra Gilmour’s designs too. 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. It marries 1960s sleekness with neat little Elizabethan touches, maids’ dresses with ruffs, a party hat doubling as a codpiece.

One of the stand-out scenes sees the characters visit a nightclub in which a stack-heeled drag queen decked out like Gloriana sings a Hamlet soliloquy. It’s a potent image, but it also feels a little hollow. Maybe I’m being churlish. This is a chance to see some accomplished female performers – Doon Mackichan tackles Feste’s songs with gusto even if she does not succeed in making the fool all that funny – fill the Olivier stage, and there’s real pleasure in that.

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Tamsin Greig is resplendent in a stylish and enjoyable, if not always subtle, production of Shakespeare's comedy