The National Theatre is doing its bit to help us survive the covid-19 pandemic by enlisting Shakespeare and broadcasting some of its productions on YouTube. On Shakespeare’s birthday, we were treated to its 2017 production of Twelfth Night directed by Simon Godwin.
As with most productions of Shakespeare, the question in what does (or can) the director and the designer bring to a play that is familiar and is available in the theatre, on film or DVD to be seen numerous times.
Godwin and Designer Soutra Gilmour put their own imprimatur on the production and, not surprisingly, push the boundaries with the intent to surprise, fascinate and entertain. In the usual course of subjective reactions, I give some credit and raise some eyebrows at the result.
It is done in modern dress with a generous portion of modern music. The set consists of two staircases that meet at the apex. They are set on a revolving stage and are used frequently.
Gender switches are almost de rigueur and Godwin partakes of the trend generously. Malvolio becomes Malvolia (Tamsin Greig), Fabian is Fabia (Imogen Doel) and Feste is played by Doon Mackichan. No issue with any of those changes and they are all done well.
Godwin is faithful to the text with the insignificant changes of pronouns where necessary but he wants modern intonations and the creation of energy. Phoebe Fox as Olivia is aggressive to the point of appearing to be overacting. When Cesario drops by she does a lot more than try to persuade him that she has fallen in love with him. She strips to a bathing suit and enters a hot tub. She pulls Cesario in the water as she makes it perfectly clear that, to put it indelicately, she has the hots for him.
Malvolia is in love with Olivia and he aspires to have her. Does Malvolia harbour same-sex feelings for her? Of course she does and if there is any doubt the answer lies in the final scene when Malvolia threatens to get even with the pack of her abusers and takes off her wig revealing or confirming that she is a lesbian. Greig gives a superb performance as she shows her ambition to rise above Olivia’s servants and her brother Sir Toby.
Sea Captain Antonio (Adam Best), may harbour homosexual feelings towards his friend Sebastian but he is a minor character and the relationship is only hinted at.
The gulling of Malvolia is never pleasant to watch but Godwin has her blindfolded and tied up and her treatment is especially cruel. There is no way of making that scene acceptable.
We have the hilarious scene where Sebastian (Daniel Ezra), mistaken by Sir Toby (Tim McMullan) and Sir Andrew (Daniel Rigby) for the cowardly Cesario, attack him. He gives far more than he gets and Olivia comes out screaming at the attackers. But the scene in Shakespeare’s text takes place in front of Olivia’s house. In this production the incident takes place in the Elephant pub. What are Toby and Andrew doing there and how is Olivia able to jump in and stop the fight? A stretcher too far.
Tamara Lawrence is an excellent Viola/Cesario as is Oliver Chris as Orsino. I enjoyed Phoebe’s spunk as Olivia and Mackichan is a highly enjoyable Feste. The acting of all is to the National Theatre standard which is indeed high.
The sets place the action basically nowhere. Going up a staircase does not locate the action anywhere. The attention to the text is admirable. Godwin makes sure that all lines are delivered carefully and clearly. A pleasure to the ear.
Twelfth Night like all plays is set in a world that had a different ethos. The closet homosexuality, the gender swaps and characterization details are in the hands and imagination of the director. But imposing current morality and standards on characters that are rooted in another world I find incongruous and unsettling. What they do in the play belongs to the era when they presumably existed and having Orsino drive up to Olivia’s door does not add anything to a great play.
In addition to Shakespeare, the national Theatre has enlisted other allies in its fight of covid-19 and you can get the details here: https://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/