Of all Shakespeare’s comedies, Twelfth Night offers the greatest challenges, and rewards, for a new production. If it’s done the right way, it can be hilarious, tragic, mournful and sexy, all at the same time. Done the wrong way, and it’s a self-indulgent chore. Given the general excellence of the Nicholas Hytner Shakespeare stagings at the National, one would hope for excellent things from Simon Goodwin’s revival. That expectations are only half met is a disappointment, but an entertaining evening can still be had.
The selling point of a determinedly modernist production is Tamsin Greig as Malvolia (sic), and she is magnificent. The early scenes are perhaps more hesitant than one would expect, but, from the great gulling scene onwards, Greig manages to bring a charisma and, unexpectedly, a likeability to the notorious steward that is seldom seen in other productions. Labouring under a hideous pageboy wig, she nonetheless conveys a keen intelligence, a magnificent singing voice (in a moment too splendid to spoil here), and, by the end, a poignant sense of loss. Gender-bending productions are awfully modish, but if you can have a performance as strong as this, why not?
Other aspects are more varied. Goodwin directed an utterly magnificent revival of The Beaux Stratagem in the early days of the Norris regime, which dealt with a fairly nondescript play with vigour and intelligence, but his hands seem tied here. Soutra Gilmour’s brilliant design offers unexpected twists and innovations, with the ever-changing set becoming everything from a dodgy gay nightclub to a sinking ship, but the central difficulty is that the production seems uncertain as to what it wants to be.
Tim McMullan is a brilliant Sir Toby Belch, for instance, but Daniel Rigby, as Aguecheek, has a hilarious man-bun and little else. Tamara Lawrance has next to no charisma as Viola, and Phoebe Fox’s Olivia, while sex-hungry in the tradition of the grande dames that have played this part, never comes into focus the way that she should. Yet Oliver Chris’s public schoolboy Orsino is good fun, and a varied supporting cast offer colour and charm.
A bad As You Like It is disappointing; a great one a good night out. The finest Twelfth Night I ever saw, directed by Sam Mendes and with Simon Russell Beale as Malvolio, dared to go for something more profound than laughs. Perhaps it’s a message that Goodwin’s production might learn, and take its lead from Greig’s superb performance.
Twelfth Night at the Olivier Theatre until 13th May 2017. Running time 3 hours including an interval. Images by Marc Brenner. For more information and tickets please visit the website.