National Theatre, London – until 13 May 2017
“A little thing would make me tell them how much I lack of a man.”
There’s nowt so queer as folk, at least not in Simon Godwin‘s version of Illyria here. A gender-swapped Malvolia longs after her mistress Olivia, hipster-fop Sir Andrew Aguecheek is entirely smitten by a flirtatious Toby Belch, Antonio follows up his snog with Sebastian by inviting him to a rendez-vous at local drag bar The Elephant. And that’s before we’ve even dealt with the sexual confusion that Shakespeare himself engineered in Twelfth Night, as shipwreck survivor Viola disguises herself as her presumed drowned twin brother and wreaks havoc on the libidos of Olivia and Orsino alike.
It’s a mark of the success of Godwin’s production that it wears this all so lightly. It’s a modern-dress version for a modern sensibility (if not for the audience member who gasped audibly at the first gay kiss) and one that is rooted in a real sense of playfulness, as an expertly cast ensemble just have a huge amount of fun with it. Phoebe Fox‘s delicious Olivia, who gives new life to the phrase ‘dance like nobody’s watching’; Oliver Chris‘ Chelsea playboy of an Orsino, in the throes of a mid-life crisis having just turned 40; Tim McMullan‘s swaggeringly confident Sir Toby ever accompanied by Niky Wardley‘s spirited Maria and the comic masterpiece that is Daniel Rigby‘s Sir Andrew.
Tamsin Greig’s schoolmarmish Malvolia is another unalloyed pleasure. Precisely, witheringly, spoken and perfectly put-together with her sharp Louise Brooks bob, her explosion of delight in the letter scene and the later attempted seduction is wonderfully, unexpectedly zany and in the wider context of this Illyria, undercuts too much thought of lesbian stereotyping. And if Tamara Lawrance doesn’t have quite as much funny business to do as Viola, it is still an assured and quietly moving performance that builds up to the tenderness of her eventual reunion with Daniel Ezra’s Sebastian, as well as loading a tacit racial dimension into the mistaken identities device.
Soutra Gilmour’s revolving ziggurat unfolds like pages of a pop-up book to reveal beautifully sumptuous designs, David Marsland’s stage management team deserving a real shout-out here for the seamless transitions, and Michael Bruce’s original compositions are evocatively realised under Dan Jackson’s musical direction, Hannah Lawrence’s breathtaking skill on an array of woodwind instruments coming close to stealing the show more than once. And though Godwin’s production extends to a full three hours, it never sags, a lightness of touch and cheekiness of wit (one suspects Emma Rice would love the acknowledgement that no-one knows what the hell a box-tree is).
And for all the fun, there’s still a deal of melancholy to be found as we wind towards the end – Doon Mackichan’s Feste is a mournful troubadour for all her glittery footwear, Fox suggests her Olivia isn’t necessarily as happy as all that to discover that who she loves is not who she has married, and Greig spares us nothing of Malvolia’s post-torture trauma, desolately accusing the audience as much as anyone for what has befallen her. Gloriously well done.