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BWW Review: TWELFTH NIGHT, National Theatre at Home

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BWW Review: TWELFTH NIGHT, National Theatre at HomeBWW Review: TWELFTH NIGHT, National Theatre at Home

The hype around The National Theatre's production of Twelfth Night when it premiered in 2017 was, understandably, centred around Tamsin Greig. Not necessarily because of her celebrity status (although that of course will have been a factor), but primarily because she would be undertaking a gender-swapped role - from Malvolio to Malvolia.

Shakespeare often subverted the concept of gender in his work - but it's perhaps never more prevalent than in Twelfth Night. With Viola pretending to be Cesario, and Antonio declaring his love for Sebastian, the sense of gender and sexual fluidity is already anchored in the text, so making Malvolio a female role and effectively turning it into a story of unrequited lesbian love feels like a natural extension in many ways. Director Simon Godwin expanded on this gender-flipping with the role of Feste, a fool of Olivia's house, played here by Doon Mackichan.

Initially, I had my concerns. How would the mistreatment of Malvolio play out when pitched in this way? Would it push the boundaries in a way that would make audiences uncomfortable? But, thanks to incredible direction by Godwin and Greig's engaging performance, it works on every level. Most notably, we are faced with the more modern sensibility of female relationships and how women can so often be the instigators of passing judgement and inflicting pain on other women.

The infamous 'yellow tights' scene is reimagined as a cabaret-style striptease, with Malvolia singing the text loud and proud - she's transformed here from sour-faced curmudgeon to a bold-yet-misguided seductress, and it's absolutely hilarious - but the audience keenly feels how tragic this spectacle is. This scene and her subsequent imprisonment are perhaps more affecting viewing right now given the current nationwide confinement we're all experiencing.

In fact, as lockdowns go, one couldn't imagine a better time spent than with simpering party boy Orsino (Oliver Chris) and his ridiculous gaggle of vacuous friends as they embark on a series of 1960s-style raves. Soutra Gilmour's gorgeously intelligent set design and brazenly eccentric costumes (I have solid suit-envy of Daniel Rigby as Sir Andrew) are the perfect marriage here - and in fact, in every scene, creating a blend of Sixties colour and Elizabethan drama (Malvolia's ruffled cape looked remarkably like a clown costume and I am here for it...).

Greig was reportedly originally offered the role of Olivia, which she turned down, before being pitched the concept for Malvolia. And thank goodness she did, because otherwise we would have been deprived of Phoebe Fox's brilliantly determined, earnest interpretation of Olivia. I last saw Fox in A View from the Bridge at the Old Vic and continue to be impressed by her - her naturalistic performances are always layered with complexity, and she plays the innocent whilst bringing a bolshy flirtatiousness to Olivia that is very endearing.

The beauty of watching a filmed performance is that we can all be privy to the nuance of movement and emotion without having to shell out upwards of £60 for the privilege. But, at times, it feels like we're missing out on stage action off-camera, as we hear the in-situ audience chuckle seemingly out of context, while we're experiencing a close-up frame of something else. But this is a tiny niggle - we're incredibly lucky that this production has been released from the archives for us all, and, like many others, I deeply regret not seeing this glorious production first-hand. It's a sumptuous delight that challenges, amuses and enthrals - who can ask for more than that?

Twelfth Night is available to watch on The National Theatre's YouTube until 30 April

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From This Author Caroline Cronin