In Twelfth Night, initials are significant. A fake love letter containing some (“M—— . . . Why, that begins my name!”) tricks the steward Malvolio into wearing bizarre garments for what he thinks is a date with his employer, Olivia. He identifies the mistress by her handwriting, especially her “C, N and T”, a gag that still gets a gasp four centuries on. It’s fitting, then, that the National Theatre’s new Twelfth Night feels LGBTQ. This melancholy comedy has always been notable for what is now known as gender fluidity. With the shipwreck survivor Viola who poses as a courtier called Cesario, audiences in the actress-free Elizabethan theatre enjoyed watching a boy pretending to be a woman pretending to be a man.
Taking its cue from a culture in which almost any expression of sexuality is possible, this revival exuberantly questions identity. In Shakespeare’s Italianate plays, transition can be achieved through minor vowel surgery, and so Fabian becomes Fabio and – most crucially – the duped steward is Malvolia (Tamsin Greig). The jester Feste is played, unusually, by a woman, Doon Mackichan. The court pissheads Sir Toby Belch and Sir Andrew Aguecheek get some homoerotic horseplay, while Sebastian is mouth-kissed by both Antonio and Orsino.
This has various effects. With all three of the main characters female, their echoing names – Viola, Olivia, Malvolia – become more anagrammatic, adding extra richness to Shakespeare’s most crossword-compiler-ish writing. And the conspiracy to trick the servant into thinking that Olivia loves him gains an additional cruelty when laid for a Malvolia, taking on a homophobic edge, aiming to out the closeted housekeeper.
Many directors have dreamed of casting John Cleese as Malvolio, and it is curious that the most successful portrayals often echo his style. The lanky Greig incorporates a variety of funny walks – crabby scuttles, horse-doing-dressage, lovebird-flaunting-plumage – in a performance that depends on a huge accumulation of small details. She gives the character obsessive compulsive disorder, finding the love letter while straightening flowerpots, and her initial appearance is so severe – a floppy Richard III wig matching the blackness of her Clintonian pantsuit – that her later courting costume is more comically shocking than usual. Greig reveals her “cross-gartered” yellow stockings in the course of a striptease that also exposes spinning nipple windmills on her bustier.
Viola is often an early role in major acting careers. She is portrayed here by the 22-year-old Tamara Lawrance, who extends the electrifying presence and vocal nuance she showed in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom at the National last year. Picking up on a line about seeking to be the “mirror” of her twin brother, Sebastian (Daniel Ezra), both Lawrance and Ezra cleverly share gestures and inflections (they also played siblings in the TV series Undercover). And, although the race of the separated twins is generally irrelevant to the staging, there may be an extra sting in the way that this white Illyrian establishment fails to tell the difference between them.
Under the artistic directorship of Rufus Norris, the National has been criticised for reducing its commitment to Shakespeare. Yet this production confirms that Simon Godwin – as he showed in his outstanding recent productions of Hamlet and The Two Gentlemen of Verona for the RSC – has an unusual facility for fast-paced, diversely cast, clearly spoken contemporary versions.
Godwin’s Twelfth Night follows his preference for a vague, non-digital present day, using a set by Soutra Gilmour in which a structure like a vast triangular slice of cheese revolves to serve as locations from a ship to a clinic, a villa and a nightclub, where a drag queen sings, underscoring the theme of sexual free expression. There is a final flourish when, in Feste’s late lines about how “the whirligig of time brings in his revenges”, time becomes a “her”. This is a Twelfth Night for everyone except extreme textual purists. Norris should sign Godwin to do at least one Shakespeare play a year.
Runs until 13 May. For more details visit: nationaltheatre.org.uk
This article appears in the 01 Mar 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The far right rises again