National Theatre
Show Hide image

Tamsin Greig’s Malvolia is as funny as any Malvolio – and perhaps more painful too

The National’s new production of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night offers a topical reminder of just how fast a joke can turn bad.

"If music be the food of love, play on”, goes the opening line to Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. But in Simon Godwin’s new production at The National Theatre in London, it is the final image of Tamsin Greig as Malvolia - drenched in falling rain and sworn to revenge - which eats at the heart.

The play can feel like a lightweight part of the Shakespearean canon: a comedy of manners in which characters swap clothes and romantic partners as easily as their jibes. Yet the swap of Olivia’s puritanical steward, from Malvolio to Malvolia, foregrounds the play's cruel subplot – reversing not just its gender dynamics but its genre too.

Greig spends the first half playing Malvolia for laughs. With a smugness worthy of Jane Austen’s Mr Collins, she glides affectedly across the stage - looking down (in all senses) upon a drunken Toby Belch and a bumbling Andrew Aguecheek.

Once Malvolia is duped into believing that her boss, Olivia, is in love with her, the mood turns to farce. A forged letter tricks her into behaving like a “madman” and the result is both uncomfortable and glorious: think Cabaret’s Liza Minnelli meets Lady Gaga in yellow, cross-gartered stockings.

But the prank has a dark side, and the second half sees Greig’s character descend into confusion, imprisonment and mental torment.

When the deception is eventually revealed, Malvolia’s comedic value is stripped completely away.  As she removes her Pulp Fiction-style black bobbed wig, she looks vulnerable and newly dangerous - and leaves the audience confused over whether they have been watching a “comedy” at all.

Toying with humour’s capacity for cruelty has always given this play an edge. But whereas previous productions have cast Malvolio in a sympathetic light by dint of the sheer cruelty the character endures, they have not often found anything inherently likeable in the priggish, status-seeking servant who is “sick of self-love” and only after Olivia for her money.

With Greig this changes. In a scene set in Olivia’s bedroom, we see Malvolia watching over her mistress in her sleep and (silently) cursing the noise the rest of the household is making beneath. The scene is brilliantly slapstick yet the comedy stems from that exasperating, fear-inducing, and all too familiar affliction of genuine care.

Some critics have suggested the production does not draw out enough of the play’s “lyricism and longing”. But if Malvolia loses her dignity in the play, she also loses the hope of love returned. Like Antonio, who spends the play smitten with Sebastian, she ends up alone.

In the many transformations of Malvolia, Greig and Simon Godwin have not only created a character as funny as any past Malvolio – but one more sympathetic, too.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

Photo: Jonathan Cape
Show Hide image

Who’s the daddy? Two memoirs that examine the complexities of fatherhood

Both Fathers and Sons by Howard Cunnell and Fathers by Sam Miller chase what can never really be known.

About three-quarters of the way in to his striking memoir, Fathers and Sons, Howard Cunnell writes about a support group he attends at the Tavistock Centre in London with his son, Jay, who is trans.

He observes the other boys, their “look” – short hair, shaved at the back and sides, low-slung jeans, Converse trainers, caps. He observes their expressions and manner: “a lot of looking down, faces set to blank, whether out of fear and unhappiness, or an approximation of the hard mask boys often wear”.

Then he observes the other dads, “all of us trying hard to look like there’s nothing unusual about being here . . . recalibrating our speech and body language to masculine when we talk to our new sons”.

He calls Jay “mate”, ruffles his hair and pretends to punch him, that manly sock on the shoulder that signals a certain kind of defined gender identity. He asks himself, “What do the dads who don’t come think? The ones who think there’s something wrong with their child?”

He has no answer to those questions: only his understanding of what it feels like to be judged, or to imagine such a judgement. Fathers and Sons begins not with Jay but with Cunnell’s own early history, with the sense of permanent loss and recrimination he suffered when his father abandoned the family – he, his elder brother, Luke, and their mother. In his childhood in Sussex, his mother’s love is no cure for the wound he carries with him always: “I want other boys to like me because that might give the lie to what I know about myself. That I am worthless. That’s why my dad left.”

The reader understands, then, that from his earliest days Cunnell, a novelist and academic, has been haunted by the absence of masculine love, forced to ask himself why that particular lack should leave such a hole in his life. When his beautiful daughter becomes – with suffering and struggles – his beautiful son, he is again accosted by those issues, this time from the other side of the generational divide.

What does it mean, a father’s love? Does it signify something different to a daughter from what it does to a son? Perhaps so, but then every love has a different shape. Sam Miller’s memoir, Fathers, comes at paternity and the question of what it means to be a father from a no less arresting angle.

Miller is the middle child of Karl Miller, the founding editor of the London Review of Books and great British littérateur who died in 2014. Miller, Sr wrote two volumes of memoir of his own, Rebecca’s Vest (1993) and Dark Horses (1998). But as Sam discovered when he was a teenager, he is not, in fact, Karl Miller’s son, but the product of an on-again-off-again affair his mother, Jane, had with a family friend, Tony White – who died suddenly at the age of 45 as the result of a blood clot in his leg. Fathers is Miller’s heartfelt attempt to come to terms with his complicated family, to consider the meaning of fatherhood and to grasp at the ghost of Tony White.

Where Karl and Jane Miller lived a mostly settled life in Chelsea, Tony, a friend from their university days and widely loved by their circle of friends, was a wanderer. A talented actor and footballer, he worked as a translator, a lamplighter, a lobsterman in the west of Ireland.

From his own memoir, it seemed that Karl Miller loved his friend unequivocally, despite the affair between Tony and his wife. Sam quotes Karl’s description of Tony on the football field. “Tony was big and strong and eager, forever being cut and gashed,” Karl Miller recalled. “His rich dark eyes, boundless generosity and zest and his lavish brushstrokes on the field of play held us together.” It is clear to Sam that his father’s affection for Tony ran deep – and this book also explores the seeming mystery of masculine love.

Tony is a shining figure, always out of reach and, after his death, he seems even more unreachable because his biological son is his spitting image. When Sam finds a photograph taken at a Christmas party that his parents gave the year before he was born, it gives him a fright: it shows Karl, staring straight at the camera, with Tony standing, half hidden, behind him. “The head in profile appears to be me, as a grown-up – some 13 months before I was born . . . The upper parts of our faces are almost identical. And I just can’t understand how more of my parents’ friends did not guess I was Tony’s son.” They might have guessed without speaking, of course.

Both of these books, in very different ways, chase what can never be known. Cunnell’s is the more artfully written, a meditation as much as a memoir, the fragments of his life presented with a novelist’s eye for detail and language. The author uses pseudonyms for those close to him, but that does not make the book any less honest.

There is plenty of darkness here – as Cunnell grows to manhood, he seems to be heading for self-destruction, his restless life marked by violence and heavy drinking – and yet his account is suffused with light. The light of the Sussex Downs that washes his childhood; “tin-coloured clouds” racing across the moon when he finds himself in Mexico; light that gleams from page after page, “a floating frame of light” that shines over Jay’s bed when he was a small child. These images of brightness, of sun and shadow, make a prism of the book. Narrow ideas of what makes a father, what makes a son, are opened out into a rainbow of possibilities.

Miller, who worked for the BBC World Service for nearly two decades, takes a much more documentary approach, searching for evidence, photographs and letters, which nearly always fail to give him the answers he seeks. No wonder, for he seems to be alone in the world:

I came across no likeness, no one in literature or in life, who seemed similar to me, who was brought up as the middle child of a married couple, and then learned his father was not really his father, and that the two men were friends and remained friends. I have not yet met my double. And my situation, my story, seemed both unusual and, in the way it played out, surprisingly uncomplicated.

Or, as this book proves, as complicated as any life. His quest for a deeper understanding of his paternity is punctuated by his accounts of the months and weeks before his father’s death, a time to which he returns in his mind, painting a loving portrait of father and son. Something is missing, and yet nothing is missing.

Perhaps Sam Miller’s memoir offers more of a sense of completion than the author knows. Fathers is a book that circles around itself, asking questions that can have no answers, looking for truth where none can finally be found, and it is all the more moving for that. 

Erica Wagner’s latest book is “Chief Engineer: the Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge” (Bloomsbury)

Fathers and Sons
Howard Cunnell
Picador, 224pp, £14.99

Fathers
Sam Miller
Jonathan Cape, 250pp, £14.99

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

0800 7318496