Phil Willmott

Review: TWELFTH NIGHT at the National Theatre

Twelfth Night It's a time for star led Shakespeare. Next week I'm looking forward to seeing Andrew Scott as Hamlet at the Almeida (despite the news that it's running at 4 hours 10 minutes!) but nipping in before him is TV and stage star Tamsin Grieg who's starring as Malvolia in TWELFTH NIGHT at the National Theatre.

If you know your Shakespeare you'll realise that Malvolia is usually Malvolio (A male character) but, as is currently the fad, a leading actress has taken on a role traditionally played by man.

As a director there are two approaches you can take to doing this. Either you change the male words to female words in the text, E.g. He to she, master to mistress etc. or you ignore all this as Glenda Jackson recently did when she played King Lear without altering a word. An all female company recently combined the two by having women play the masculine language but within the context of a women's prison to make sense of it all.

Anyway at the National they've taken a traditionally male character and converted his crush on his mistress into a lesbian passion.

Malvolia works for Olivia who's in mourning for her brother but a young man arrives with love letters from her neighbour, Orsino. Olivia falls in love with the messenger and begins to blossom and the house comes alive again with the home invasion of her riotous uncle Sir Toby Belch and his dissolute mates including a clown.

The trouble is the messenger isn't a young man at all but a shipwrecked young woman, Viola, who's in disguise and searching for her identical twin brother.

The young woman, Viola, falls in love with the man who's passion she's supposed to be conveying to Olivia. He, in turn, also falls in love with the disguised young woman despite the fact that he believes her to be male.

Then the twin brother arrives and, after a flurry of even more confusion, all is revealed and a melancholy happiness descends.

I promise you when you see it performed it's all perfectly easy to follow.

On this occasion the main event is the sub-plot which centres around Grieg as Olivia's steward Malvolia. Sir Toby Belch and his friends trick the servant into humiliating herself, believing her mistress to be in love with her. As a result the severely dressed and fun-hating Malvolia appears grinning before her mistress in a ridiculous outfit and is dispatched unjustly for fear she's gone mad.

Director Simon Godwin and director Soutra Gilmour choose the elegant villas and club scene of contemporary Ibiza as their island setting and this inspires a remarkably fresh interpretation with lots of new spins on comic moments that have grown tiresome to those who've seen the oft performed play a lot.

There's on stage cars, mopeds, jazz and club music, Ibithencan colours and a huge elegant and rotating set that suggests everything from a shipwreck to a chapel. This isn't a gimmicky production though because every contemporary spin works with the spirit of the play and will help rather then hinder first timers to understand it.

My only slight reservation is that because of the interest everyone's taking in making Malvolio Malvolia it slightly overshadows everything else as we wait for each entrance wondering what she'll do next with the role. It works absolutely fine as a female character. In fact if you didn't know there'd been a switch you wouldn't notice but her star status means she's allowed to extend the role with a little to much mugging to the audience and silly walks then is necessary or desirable.

But this is a fresh, fast moving, funny and very collectible production which delivers plenty of laughs and the full power of the play's gloomy punchline about the fleeting intoxication of love.

Twelfth Night