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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.

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Beware of tea: the cuppa has started wars and ruined lives

. . . and it once led F Scott Fitzgerald to humiliate himself.

A drink sustains me – one that steams companionably as I write. It is hot, amber and fragranced differently from any wine; nor does it have wine’s capacity to soften and blur. I’ve never understood how the great drunks of literature, Ernest Hemingway, F Scott Fitzgerald and their like, ever put anything on the page more worthwhile than a self-involved howl, though even Hemingway apparently finished the day’s writing before beginning the day’s drinking.

Tea is more kindly, or so I’d always thought. Those aromatic leaves, black or green, rolled and dried and oxidised, have some of wine’s artistry but none of its danger. Even their exoticism has waned, from a Chinese rarity (“froth of the liquid jade”), for which 17th-century English traders were made to pay in solid silver, to a product that can be found dirt cheap on supermarket shelves.

There are even home-grown teas now. The Tregothnan estate in Cornwall has supplemented its ornamental rhododendrons and camellias with their relative camellia sinensis, the tea plant, while Dalreoch in the Scottish Highlands grows a white (that is, lightly oxidised) tea, which is smoked using wood from the surrounding birch plantations. Tellingly, this local version is priced as steeply as the imported rarity once was.

I enjoy a simple, solitary mug, but I also appreciate communal tea-drinking – the delicate tea warmed with water at 85°C (a little higher for sturdier black blends), the teapot and china, the pourer volunteering to be “mother”, as if this were a liquid that could nurture. But in reality, tea is not so gentle.

Those long-ago English traders disliked haemorrhaging silver, so they started exporting opium to China from India and paying with that. This was a fabulous success, unless you happened to be Chinese. In 1839, a commissioner attempted to clamp down on the illegal and harmful trade, and the result was the Opium Wars, which the Chinese lost. “Gunboat diplomacy” – a phrase that surely constitutes froth of a different kind – won England a great deal of silver, a 150-year lease on Hong Kong and an open tea market. China received a potful of humiliation that may eventually have helped spark the Communist Revolution. As many of us have recently realised, there is nothing like economic mortification to galvanise a nation to kick its leaders.

Later, the tea bush was planted in India, Ceylon and elsewhere, and the fragrant but bitter brew for the upper classes became a ubiquitous fuel. But not an entirely sweet one: just as the opium trade ensured our tea’s arrival in the pot, the slave trade sweetened it in the cup. Even today, conditions for tea workers in places such as Assam in north-east India are often appalling.

Scott Fitzgerald also had tea trouble. When invited round by Edith Wharton, he frothed the liquid jade so assiduously with booze beforehand and risqué conversation during (a story about an American tourist couple staying unawares in a Paris bordello) that he was nearly as badly humiliated as those 19th-century Chinese. Wharton, unshocked, merely wondered aloud what the couple had done in the bordello and afterwards pronounced the entire occasion “awful”.

Some would blame his alcoholic preliminaries, but I’m not so sure. Tea has started wars and ruined lives; we should be wary of its consolations. On that sober note, I reach for the corkscrew and allow the subject to drive me softly, beguilingly, to drink.

Nina Caplan is the 2014 Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the Year and 2014 Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year for her columns on drink in the New Statesman. She tweets as @NinaCaplan.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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