An actress playing Malvolio, Olivia having an all female household, including her fool, what is the theatre world coming to? Actually the casting of this lively, bawdy and extremely funny adaptation directed by Simon Goodman is inspired. And of course we shouldn’t question gender reversal when dealing with Shakespeare plays in general and Twelfth Night in particular. The whole premise of this play, originally written as entertainment for the close of the Christmas Season, is about a world in reverse. Twins, separated following a shipwreck, with the female, Viola, disguising herself as a boy, renaming herself Cesario and falling in love with Orsino. Countess Olivia subsequently falling for Cesario, thinking she is a he and the self important Malvolio under the illusion that Olivia is in love with him.
Tamsin Grieg is Malvolio, well Malvolia actually, and she dazzles. Ever the actress who has the wonderful ability to have an audience in stitches with just the smallest of facial ticks, her facial asides here are a joy. Initially clad head to toe in black, including the fiercest of black bob haircuts, she morphs into the uninhibited, if somewhat self-conscious exhibitionist clad in a canary yellow swimsuit. As if that weren’t enough, her ensemble comes complete with revolving nipple tassles and matching tights with black cross garters the whole of which is encased in a white pierrot cape. Her rictus smile remains intact even whilst she is navigating a hazardous staircase in high stilletos and she is perfect at portraying the discomfort her change in attire has wrought. Whilst we understand her original disdain and priggish pomposity is more than enough reason for Maria and her compatriots to get their own back and likewise take a huge delight in it, we eventually feel shame for our complicity. Malvolia’s line, “I’ll be revenged on the whole pack of you” is delivered with one of Grieg’s famous sidelong glances, leaving us in no doubt that we, the audience, are included in this. Her abject misery as she makes her final ascent of the stairs gives us all a twinge of guilt.
Soutra Gilmour has made full use of the Olivier’s drum stage by designing an ingenious triangular folding set complete with staircase. Starting off as the floundering ship, well actually, more ocean liner, the triangular patterns turn into the various scenes including, amongst others, garden, plunge pool and gay club. Yes, that’s right, gay club, complete with drag queen singing a Hamlet soliloquy! As you may have gathered this Twelfth Night is geared more towards laughs than poetic melancholy, but all the cast are so adept at comedy that the whole thing is a feel good joy.
Malvolia isn’t the only cross casting for Feste, the fool, is amusingly brought to life by Doon Mackichan, resplendent in glittery boots, bright tights and shorts. Who knew she had such a sweet singing voice? Sir Toby Belch is an ageing rocker type, a drawling, dissolute, drunk played to perfection by Tim McMullan. Daniel Rigby is his side-kick, Sir Andrew Aquacheek, complete with hideous man bun, clad head to toe in pink and full of mincing hilarity. I last saw him at The National in One Man Two Governors, alongside Oliver Chris and he also appears here as the lovelorn Count Orsino in full playboy mode. They were extremely funny then and are no different now.
Phoebe Fox is an entertaining Olivia who easily changes from sophisticated lady of the manor to youngster in the throes of a major crush. Olivia, the object of her passion, is sweetly played by Tamara Lawrance, especially when she realises she has ignited some kind of passion in her boss, Count Orsino. Daniel Ezra as her brother, Sebastian is equally charming and they seem genuinely thrilled when eventually reunited at the end of the play.
I could quibble about the seeming fluctuation in period between the 1930’s and present day, but that seems churlish seeing as how I left the theatre with a smile on my face having been entertained for three hours, which literally sped by.