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BWW Review: TWELFTH NIGHT, National Theatre

Suffused with grief and unrequited love, Twelfth Night is often played as an anti-comedy - more melancholy than mirthful. Not so in Simon Godwin's brash, gender-bending, utterly joyful rendering, which takes loss as a cue to embrace life.

Soutra Gilmour's spectacular set is the ideal playground: a pyramid of moving staircases (shades of Hogwarts) that rends in two during the opening shipwreck which separates the twins. Water then recurs throughout, from a private pool to a helpfully versatile fountain.

As Gilmour's giant stairs whiz around the Olivier revolve, there's always an added bonus to a scene - on-lookers peering round corners or spying through the sleek sheets of glass, or Olivia, awoken by Cesario, rocking out alone to music she'd recently ignored (special mention to the superb woodwind player Hannah Lawrence).

It keeps the play's sometimes disparate plotlines tightly connected, infused with the giddy subversion that makes love and madness two sides of the same coin. Oliver Chris's Orsino has shades of his One Man, Two Guvnors supremely arrogant toff - romantic overtures comical in their clueless entitlement, and thus comparable with Malvolia's deluded ambition.

Yes, that's Malvolia, with Godwin's smart cross-casting adding to the sexual and gender fluidity in this casually queer production; in addition to the two (albeit disguised) same-sex pairings, Antonio and Sir Andrew demonstrate desire for Sebastian and Sir Toby respectively. Chris's Orsino seems untroubled by his confusion, even kissing Sebastian rather than Viola after the reveal.

Alone in this sea of contented flexibility is Tamsin Greig's Malvolia - a severe-bobbed, schoolmarmish buzzkill guarding her desires and zealously adhering to the rules. Greig invests her with marvellous eccentricity: she walks ramrod-straight or trots in a circle when agitated. The yellow stockings appearance becomes a full striptease - from pierrot costume to bathing suit and whirling nipple tassels.

In a performance suggesting the Globe should book her stat, Greig displays an outstanding facility to interact with an audience - she wrings such humour from the letter discovery scene with her line readings, double takes and lightning-fast expressions that the asides from the watching plotters become an unnecessary distraction from our engagement with her.

Though the star turn, she's not alone in her fresh interpretation. In Daniel Rigby's hands, the often tiresome Andrew Aguecheek becomes a plaintive hipster with a manbun and a fondness for salmon checked suits, hot-pink socks and stabbing topiary; he even gets stuck in the splits as the revolve starts to move. Tim McMullan, meanwhile, is a silky, venal Toby overtly exploiting those around him while trying to project rock star maverick: swaggering in skinny jeans and a frilled shirt, he self-consciously uses Olivia's brother's urn as an ashtray.

Doon Mackichan isn't the first to struggle with making Feste's laboured jests amusing, but we do at least get genuinely enjoyable songs, manic dancing and glitter boots from her, while Phoebe Fox's Olivia processes grief in a fury: she's stroppy and exasperated, trapped in a prison partly of her own making. Tamara Lawrance's cheeky, vital Viola saunters past her defences with a physical, sibling-like playfulness - a reminder these two are connected by the loss of a brother.

Amidst the riotous clowning, the romances feel a tad undercooked. There isn't a clear enough distinction between Orsino's posturing declarations and his real, growing affection for Viola, while the latter's interactions with Olivia are relatively platonic (despite the introduction of very tiny swimming trunks). However, Fox makes the strong choice to play the climax ambiguously - Olivia is naturally wary of Sebastian, and retains a clear interest in the female twin who opened her heart.

The broad, fourth wall-breaking approach does mean the more understated Lawrance, along with Daniel Ezra's agreeable Sebastian and Adam Best's ardent Antonio, are sometimes lost in the mix. The trauma of Malvolia's treatment is evident, but similarly eclipsed. Yet Godwin's bonkers melting pot is thoroughly entertaining - from the combination of modern, retro and Elizabethan styling to startling moments like a drag queen singing Hamlet - and gives this familiar play a welcome shot of adrenaline.

Twelfth Night at the National Theatre until 13 May

Photo credit: Marc Brenner

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From This Author Marianka Swain