For all its wonderful comic set pieces, William Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night can be a very difficult play to keep on the boil, as demonstrated by Peter Hall’s uneven 2011 production here in what is now the Dorfman Theatre. Simon Godwin’s answer is to open a box full of tricks – topical gags, visual surprises and casting against type all feature prominently – and throw them in, one by one.
Perhaps the biggest single trick is Soutra Gilmour’s ingenious set, a high pyramid that revolves and opens out to become an elegant glass conservatory, a night club, a church and more. Five musicians roam the stage, mingling with the actors playing in jazz and traditional styles, and making music the food of laughs with a torch song version of the “To be or not to be…” speech.. Wrong play, but who cares? A paddling pool appearing centre stage brings back memories of Zoë Wanamaker and Simon Russell Beale taking a dip in almost the same spot during Nicholas Hytner’s 2007 Much Ado About Nothing. There is so much going on here that the comedy lulls in Shakespeare’s play pass almost unnoticed.
Tamara Lawrence’s Viola and Daniel Ezra’s Sebastian are a delightful pair, almost making it credible that they could pass for each other, but, as always in this play, not quite. Tim McMullan’s Sir Toby Belch is a louche drunkard pursued by Daniel Rigby’s camp, pink-suited Sir Andrew Aguecheek and we get a boisterous female Feste from Doon Mackichan. Of the main characters, only the two dullest, Orsino (Oliver Chris) and Olivia (Phoebe Fox) are played conventionally.
In a deft piece of gender bending, Malviolo is not only played by a woman, he becomes one, re-named Malvolia. Tamsin Greig appears in black, with matching long straight hair, her demeanour is stiff and her facial expressions dour. She is a humourless Puritan, venting her wrath and delivering messages with exaggerated hand gestures. Greig is a mistress of comedy and earning two show-stopping ovations in a non-musical is not bad going, but then comes the downfall, the most emphatic anti-bullying statement to be found in theatre, and Malvolia’s humiliation is every bit as harrowing as that of any of the Malvolios who have preceded her.
Godwin’s success comes at some cost as abundant physical comedy and constant mocking of the text rob his production of some of the play’s romance and lyricism. In their place, we get humour that is laced with a darker than usual dash of melancholy. The confusions sorted, the couplings made and the festivities over, Greig, stripped of all dignity, climbs the pyramid, a figure of abject hopelessness, and Godwin stamps his production as being all about this extraordinary and unforgetable Malvolia.
Performance date: 18 April 2017