Culture Theatre

‘There is no darkness but ignorance’: Sensation and subversion in Twelfth Night

Amidst our starvation from theatre and longing for joy during lockdown, The National Theatre’s Twelfth Night explodes through the screen, a triumphant exultation of romance and comedy, complete with mistaken identity, unrequited love – a couple of jazzy ballads.

Shakespeare’s gleeful exploration of identity and gender is pushed beyond the boundaries by Godwin’s bold casting choices. In Elizabethan times, it was convention for men to play women’s roles; in contemporary theatre, inclusion of all genders and sexualities is a widely accepted course of action. Godwin has reflected this progression in his gender blind casting of Tamsin Greig as ‘Mavolia.’ I hoped this choice would reflect on the meaning of the play itself, rather than merely serve as an attempt to cause controversy amongst traditionalists – who might argue that such casting reversals distract from the conversations surrounding gender and sexuality already highlighted through the gender swaps between the lovers. After seeing the play, even the most sceptical will surely be convinced that this type of casting is exactly what is needed to awaken new themes and bring new meanings to words written 400 years ago. Sexuality and gender is so fluid in this production that by the end it indeed appears irrelevant, highlighting the universal need to love and be loved.

Malvolia, played by the charismatic and hysterical Tamsin Grieg, was a phenomenon of her own. Her transformation from austere, straight-laced puritan to a flamboyant lesbian through a sensationally eccentric burlesque strip tease, complete with yellow stockings and revolving nipple-windmills, was toe-curlingly cringe-inducing yet also endearing; it made Malvolia ridiculous, while maintaining convincing character development. Grieg had the audience in the palm of her hand – even a slight eyebrow raise from her brought the house down, a true delight to watch. The gender reversal gave Greig the freedom to fully explore the character and interpret her in an entirely unique way.

Changing Malvolio’s gender also shifted the relationships between the characters. The humiliation of Malvolia, now a queer woman, becomes a delicate issue to navigate since any mockery of her potentially reflects on her queerness too. Godwin negotiates this well however, initially aligning the audience’s sympathies with Sir Toby and Maria while they mock Malvolia’s pompousness, before shifting feeling to Malvolia as she is made vulnerable, leaving the laughter of anyone who tormented her, cast and audience alike, to ring jarringly cruel and empty. Malvolia’s humiliation also speaks to the conversation about the undermining of women in power, especially by other women – an issue especially topical in the time of the play’s staging (at the peak of the #metoo movement). Godwin’s play asks hefty questions about our treatment of others, but leaves it to us to answer them.

The extension of gender reversal to the characters of Feste and Fabia didn’t add quite as much to the play’s meaning, but neither did it inhibit it. Imogen Doel’s Fabia was refreshingly cheeky and sharp, a stark juxtaposition to the bumbling Sir Andrew. Feste, played by Doon Mackichan was disappointingly bland – I came to feel a rather inexplicable irritation when she came on stage. Until the scene in the prison, her role felt rather undefined, and there seems no point in an unfunny fool. Likewise, Phoebe Fox’ Olivia felt unsatisfactory. Quite unlike the brooding and melancholy figure typically portrayed, she appeared giddy and fickle, resulting in a loss of grounding for the role as she became, at times, needlessly silly. Overall, however, the chemistry between the actors was dynamic and witty, producing well-timed chaos.

The flamboyant costumes and elaborate set changes, throwing the audience into a melange of different eras, could at times feel overwhelming, as if you had stepped into a kaleidoscope. However, they do effectively accentuate the energy and chaos on stage.

Although adding greater context and definition to the smaller roles meant that there was a rich tapestry of characters on stage, the main storylines were at times obscured by seemingly irrelevant additions, such as romance between Sebastian and Antonio. Yet overall, the play was joyous and transportive, the resounding message that love is universal a potent one. The subtle weaving of more serious themes such as the pain of rejection, the transformative power of love, and the need to redress the undermining of women in power, gave the production substance. Twelfth Night is a glorious gender-fluid satire, and a much needed reminder that love triumphs all.