Review: Twelfth Night (The Olivier Theatre)
Updated: Jun 10
So, off to the cinema once again, this time to see the National Theatre’s latest Shakespearian concoction with Simon Godwin’s “Twelfth Night”, starring Tamara Lawrence as Viola, Pheobe Fox as Olivia, Chris Oliver as Orsino, and Tamsin Grieg as “Malvolia”. The show seems to have divided both critics and audience members, due in large part to its LGBTQ+ changes that, let’s face it, aren’t going to make everybody happy. Imagine, if you will, a Shakespeare-themed pride parade in a well-to-do English countryside. That is the closest analogy to explain this production. Perhaps I am a typical Centennial, but for me, that queer and quirky nature completely won me over, and it filled me with joy to see a production tackle these themes so well.
I’m a big fan of Tamsin Grieg generally, but here she really shone, turning her performance up to eleven and kept it there. Malvolia, usually played as an overly-strict insect with a stick up his arse, is here a self-doubting closeted lesbian whose need for order is borne out of a need to feel that she in control. Her characterisation made you laugh with her (and often at her), pity her, and rejoice with her when, despite feeling tricked and alone, she finds peace with herself. It’s a genius performance with perfect direction to boot. This particular play always risks coming off as being mean-spirited in its humour, leaving a bitter taste in an audience member’s mouth. This was prevented, however, as in at the final moment, as Grieg spread her arms in happiness as rain tumbled from the rafters of the Olivier Theatre. It had a wonderful sense of closure that, in the text alone, the character does not get.
Gender-swapping the play’s antagonist, and in doing so altering their sexuality, was not the only change. Antonio is gay and a cross-dresser, Sabastian is either bisexual or pansexual, and Orsino falls for Viola even when she is dressed as a boy, and is relieved when she removes her disguise. I appreciated that it added another layer to his character, and made their love more believable (though honestly, Lawrence had such terrific chemistry with both Oliver and Fox that it was difficult to know who to ship). "The Elephant”, which I assume is an inn in the original script (I regret that it has been some time since I last visited the play) is now a bar of…a rather different variety. A variety lit by neon and clad in leather and latex, and that cleverly fulfils its establishment’s name.
Each scene seemed to feature a new, unseen concept (something particularly pertinent to me at this time, as I try to find an original concept for my directing exam in a couple of weeks). Some of them worked, and some of them didn’t. Setting Orsino and Viola’s heart-to-heart in the drunken dregs of the end of a 40th birthday party made sense and set a good tone of heady honesty. It worked rather better than their first conversation, set during a light-hearted boxing practice. It did serve the purpose of showing Viola adapting to her masculine persona, but it gave the impression that Orsino and Viola were equal. Viola’s Cesario is Orsino’s subordinate. That is something that no unique concept can change. In any case, an interesting concept is really cool, but I found that when every scene had something “new” it overwhelmed the senses. That was true of the tone as well. Everything was on full volume; the design, the performances, the direction. I thought that, with the concept scenes being the only exception, it all blended well and the over-the-top tone excited me, which is exactly what I want in a Shakespearian comedy. However, it is best to be prepared for this assault if you decide that, in spite of my mercilessly spoiler-laden review, you wish to see it.
The performances of most of the cast were tremendous. I was delighted when Daniel Rigby burst onto the stage, perfectly cast as the lovable idiot Andrew Aguecheek, and he continued to steal the stage whenever he entered it. Fox made for a brilliant Olivia, whose eccentricity made her avoid the trap of seeming uptight and also made her seem neither masculine nor feminine. I was rather less enamoured by her wooer, Oliver Chris as Orsino. Even though he shows the depth of Orsino’s character, seemingly falling for a boy but denying it as he questions himself and avoids scandal, but I found him unavoidably dadsy and not quite as endearing as he obviously wanted to be. Then again, he didn’t actively annoy me, as I regret to say Imogen Doel did as Fabia. Granted, she had the tough job of playing a slightly unnecessary character, but she made it worse by trying to live up to Grieg’s physical exuberance, resulting in her making a cringe-inducing stage presence.
Something else I found a little intrusive was the stage design. I never thought I’d say this, but stairs are a bit over-used by now. Perhaps it is mere coincidence that I have seen shows a fair few shows recently with massive staircases dominating the stage (RSC’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and The National’s “Threepenny Opera”), after all, it is a tremendously versatile set piece. It does seem to be the fashion at the moment though, and even though it allowed for a terrific storm scene and a symbolic page-turning changing of setting, it seems a little, dare I say, cliché at this point, and too recycled for such an innovative production. Otherwise, the art deco design was super stylish and made for the perfect setting for the order-obsessed Malvolia and the image-conscious Olivia.
The final product made for some moments that made me curl my toes in happiness, and others that made me roll my eyes. There was no in-between. Watching Grieg overcome at discovering that she is loved was a delight, but seeing her pursue that love was disappointing, and it seemed they had peaked too soon. That said, I think that what Godwin produced was ingeniously original and could not be better suited for a play than the gender and sexuality questioning “Twelfth Night”. Over-the-top for some, certainly, but if nothing else it is hard not to be swept up in Grieg’s top-notch performance. Three stars.