The headline news about the National's new production of Twelfth Night has, of course, been the re-gendered casting of Malvolio as Malvolia, with Tamsin Greig assuming the mantle of the romantically deluded servant infatuated by her mistress, so Malvolia turns out to be a lesbian.
It follows such recent experiments on the London stage in the last year that have included Michelle Terry playing Henry V, Harriet Walter playing Prospero and Glenda Jackson playing King Lear. This is, of course, far from the first time that this route has been adopted: 22 years ago Fiona Shaw played Richard II at the National, while more recently Maxine Peake was Hamlet at Manchester's Royal Exchange in 2014. But isolated examples are turning into a trend, and I, for one, couldn't welcome it more. Theatre is make-believe, after all; and when these plays were first premiered in the 16th century, all roles were played by men, so there's never been an insistence on gender verisimilitude.
But if that's what makes the news, what matters is what happens in performance; and for a play that is already playfully concerned with gender roles, as men fall in love with what they think are male pages and women fall in love with women they think are men, it adds another layer of intrigue -- and comedy. There's hardly a funnier actress alive than Tamsin Greig, or a more woundingly, wonderfully heartbreaking one: she is perfect for Malvolia.
And Simon Godwin's modern-dress production has the multiple levels of intrigue, deception, comedy and heartbreak playing in parallel against it, with one of the best comedy casts I've ever seen assembled on this stage. Also sheer comedy gold are Oliver Chris as Orsino and Daniel Rigby as Sir Andrew Aguecheek (both of them alumni of the National's original production of One Man, Two Guvnors, and this may be the funniest NT show since then), with Tim McMullan (another comedy stalwart of the NT) as Sir Toby Belch and the hilarious Doon Mackichan as Feste.
There's tenderness, too, beside the hilarity, with Tamara Lawrence making a sensitive Viola and Daniel Ezra as her brother Sebastian who she thinks has been drowned.
Soutra Gilmour's design makes spectacular use of the Olivier Theatre's drum revolve, with the stage in regular motion and conjuring and reconfiguring locations constantly. The show is transporting, in every sense.
Twelfth Night tickets are now on sale.
What the Press Said...
"Tamsin Greig is a magnetic Malvolia in an extravagant production that gleefully refocuses Shakespeare’s comedy."
Susannah Clapp for The Observer
"I have to say that the audience seemed to love the show but it came over to me to be the kind production that piles it on without sensitively thinking it through."
Paul Taylor for The Independent
"The gender switcheroo works well, then. I wish I could be as praising about the rest of Simon Godwin’s production which begins with a mighty evocation of a tempest but thereafter remains largely at sea."
Dominic Cavendish for The Telegraph