Whatever I see Tamsin Greig in, Black Books always hovers on the edge of the performance. And that was ideal for this version of Twelfth Night at the National. Shakespeare’s comedies aren’t always played for laughs but this one was.
The stage set revolved around the massive mast of the storm tossed ship from the opening scene. At each scene change a revolve revealed a new slice of Illyria – sweeping stairs, a garden, rooms, a nightclub, more rooms, a cell, a church and a jacuzzi. Played in dress of an indeterminate age, the play allowed the cast to squeeze every ounce of humour from the plot.
And the plot had a significant twist. Tamsin Greig – remember her – played Malvolio. Or in this recasting, Malvolia. With the fool, Feste, also played by a woman a whole different layer of gender bending was added to the original conceit of a female twin posing as a man with all the obvious mistaken identities when her brother appears, saved from the shipwreck.
This three hours flew by. Even the scene where Malvolia is imprisoned, which usually seems disjointed and out of place, was a seemless part of this production. Malvolia’s supposed madness which led to her imprisonment is brought on as she believes she is following the dress code and demeanour which will win the heart of her Mistress (but not her mistress) Olivia. A male Mavolio merely presents yellow knee length socks tied in an elaborate fashion. Tamsin Greig wears a whole body bee-like costume which is so ostentatious that the revolving flowers on her nipples seem commonplace. One can believe in the madness of this love struck Malvolia.
Twelfth Night, The National Theatre
21 February 2017