It’s not as though I haven’t seen Twelfth Night before – it’s not even my favourite Shakespeare – but I hadn’t seen it at the National before, so I wasn’t going to turn down the chance. The tale of Viola and Sebastian, twins who become separated after a shipwreck, each thinking the other dead, is one of mistaken identity and trickery. Viola, disguised as a manservant, is in love with Orsino, who loves Olivia, who has her sights set in turn on Viola, thinking her a man. Adding to this complicated situation is a subplot involving Sir Toby Belch and his associates, who carouse and revel and play cruel jokes on Olivia’s steward, Malvolia (usually Malvolio, but in this production the character is a woman, which works really well).
This production, directed by RSC stalwart Simon Godwin, is probably the best I’ve seen of this play. Gender and sexuality are fluid in a way that is modern while also staying true to Shakespeare’s work: women used to be played by boys in his plays, after all. Strong performances from Tamara Lawrance and Daniel Ezra as the twins Viola and Sebastian, and Phoebe Fox and Oliver Chris as Olivia and Orsino, bring these themes to life, and some interesting directorial choices offer plenty of food for thought.
Tim McMullan amuses as Sir Toby Belch, while Doon Mackichan proves herself to have a strong singing voice and excellent comic timing as Feste, but the evening truly belongs to Tamsin Greig, whose Malvolia is not only very funny, but a truly tragic figure towards the end of the play, hair shorn, stripped and incredibly vulnerable.
Soutra Gilmour’s set makes good use of the Olivier revolve and one scene in particular has an impressive fountain. One of the strongest productions I have seen at the National, and the best Shakespearean comedy.