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NT Live’s Twelfth Night: Review

Cecilia Wang reviews the National Theatre's latest (virtual) offering.

The French philosopher and moralist Jean de la Bruyère once remarked “life is a tragedy for those who feel, and a comedy for those who think”. Simon Godwin’s production of ‘Twelfth Night’ defies the satirist; whichever way one may look at the gender-swapping Malvolia, one is left with an abundance of compassion for the much-maligned character, masterfully portrayed by Tamsin Greig.

As Godwin confesses, ‘Twelfth Night’ is a comedy that is rarely comedically played out on stage, hence, he set himself the goal of lavishly regaling his audience. In this the National Theatre has rambunctiously succeeded. The fountain as a character is animated in many a playful scene. The jester puts on colourful tights and hippie clothing. Countess Olivia blatantly seduces a hapless Cesario (cross-dressed by Viola) in the swimming pool, erotically flashing her thighs. Godwin’s ‘Twelfth Night’ is a visual feast, laden with absurd, mockable attire and action, which somehow manages to only contribute to the laughter induced.

Beyond its label as a comedy and the presence of many an absurdly mirthful sentence, the play is riddled with cruelty, of fate and of humans. The twin siblings, Viola and Sebastian, are separated by a shipwreck, leaving each alone to fend for themselves and in the belief that the other is dead. Countess Olivia presides over a sumptuous household containing a resourceful jester (Feste), and inhabited by her Bacchic uncle, Sir Toby and his silly dandy of a friend, Sir Andrew Aguecheek. The latter proves a visual and metaphorical ray of sunshine as he changes between his bright-coloured Rupert Bear trousers and flashes his thigh by the pool when wrapped in a kimono. Yet we see Countess Olivia predominantly in black, the colour of mourning, as she has refused to step out of her grief for seven years upon the successive losses of her father and brother. Indeed, as Fox’s Olivia remarks about Malvolia, ‘she’s sad and civil, and suits well for a servant with my fortune. / I am as mad as she, if sad and merry madness equal be.’ The Count Orsino, played by Oliver Chris as the starry-eyed, brainless toff, spends most of his days pining over a reclusive Olivia. Even the jester, whose function is to provide laughter, delivers a melodic rendering of man’s loneliness even at the point of death: “my part of death, no one so true did share it. Not a friend, not a flower sweet, On way black coffin let there be strewn, Not a friend, not a friend greet, My poor corpse, where my bones shall be thrown.” The depressing and depressed Malvolia faces a cruel twist of fate; her newly arrived stage of happiness is immediately snatched away as she gets tied up, blindfolded and locked up in a dark house. Yet what distinguishes this production is that, amidst this backdrop of endless melancholy, the audience is entertained throughout the evening. One emerges from the experience, strangely enough, with hope.

Part of the hope comes from the happy ending after many a mismatch of gender and love. The exquisite love triangle – Orsino wishes to marry Olivia, sending Cesario to woo her; whilst Cesario, who is really Viola, pines after their master and fearfully runs away from Olivia’s erotic advances. The hopeless debacle is mercifully ended by the appearance of Viola’s twin brother, Sebastian, on the scene. Tamara Lawrence is eminently believable in her androgyny and convincingly pulls off the romantic yearning of an inexperienced teenager. After the un-anticipated kiss with her master, Orsino, which the latter supposedly wanted her to convey to Olivia, Lawrence’s Viola sits on a chair and ecstatically jitters into the air like a child who has just been given a massive sweet. The physical comedy smartly captures her rueful credulity. Fox’s Olivia requires a vast emotional range as she sways between extreme grief and forceful erotic pursuits. Fox first struck me as affected, trying too hard to convey the majesty of an aristocratic mistress as to evoke bathos. Yet as the play goes on, I find myself wondering- is this contrivedness an accurate reading of Olivia’s emotional state? The bereaved daughter and sister perhaps only wishes to be left alone to grieve, yet she has to entertain her boisterous uncle and his company in her house as well as responding to Orsini’s relentless requests. Perhaps this contrivedness is a manifestation of Olivia’s strenuous effort to deal with such intrusions to her private peace?

Tamsin Greig reigns superbly in this massive ensemble cast, rendering a most visually outrageous and yet infinitely compassionate portrayal of Malvolia. However, one may feel about the merits of gender-swapping here, this production has no doubt succeeded in its endeavour to fundamentally feminize the role for Greig. Her bee-like yellow tights and the corresponding close-gartering, with electric fans on her breasts, look every inch the womanly attire. As Greig concedes to the Guardian, Malvolia is no doubt a Puritanical bully, yet she is the victim of her own circumstances. Her controlling nature (comically played out through her exasperated re-arrangement of plant pots and the determination to make sense of the pronunciation of a word) and moralistic berating of others are manifestations of a person overwhelmed by the uncontrollable chaos that has beset her life, and hence, desperately trying to regain order and control. Alas, her idea of order is closely married to her Puritan ways, which stand as the staunch opposite of the merry ways of the rest of the household. Indeed, Sir Toby cries, ‘out of tune, Lady. Ye lie. Art any more than a steward? Dost thou think, because thou art virtuous, there should be no more cakes and ale?’ The belittlement of her social status illuminates yet another aspect of Malvolia’s struggle- she is a social upstart. Her credulity at the fabricated declaration of love (from Olivia, though deceitfully written by Maria, the maid, pretending to be the former without the former’s knowledge) is made more explainable given her desperate attempt to escape the insecurity in her life. What could prove more stable than becoming Countess Malvolia in a society dominated by power, station and wealth? Without having been “born great”, and failing to “achieve greatness”, her only recourse seems to “have greatness thrust upon” her. Her immediate transformation from a sour-tongued and bitter-tempered Puritan to a clownishly gleeful seducer seems to testify to the perhaps clichedly phrased lyric, ‘Love is all you need’. Yes, Malvolia is not a nice person. Yes, she does spoil joy. But one cannot help but overwhelmingly sympathise with her and wish her well. This sentiment is reinforced by the undeserved cruelty that became her treatment at the rest of the household. As the Aristotle insightfully pointed out, the tragedy is made greater by its hamartia-induced peripeteia. And one can feel the more spiritually cleansed by the overwhelming tenderness one experiences at the stage of anagnorisis. Shakespeare astutely juxtaposes Malvolia’s fleeting ecstasy with her subsequent entrapment and disillusionment, evoking infinite pathos.

The lyricism and melody of Shakespeare’s verses are given marvellous expression by the musical compositions of the show. Machichan, who plays Feste, has a sweet voice that manages to convey the utmost poignancy in an angelic delivery.

In the end, one leaves the production with a sense of tender hope and perhaps a slightly irritated throat after such uproarious laughter. I am reminded of Lear’s Fool’s declaration, “thou wouldst make a good fool”. Against the tumultuous tides of fate, we’re perhaps all a bit helpless in our station, no matter how earnest our efforts. Perhaps the joy of an absurd comedy is that every character comes across as a fool in their respective plots and, yet, one’s understanding of human folly, and therefore, compassion for it, is made ever keener. Present mirth need not only have present laughter.

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