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.

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"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.