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'Twelfth Night': a brilliant update on the Shakespearean comedy

In a twist on the Jacobean tradition of casting male actors in female roles, the National Theatre’s production of Twelfth Night has taken Shakespeare’s comedy of mistaken identity and fully embraces its characters’ fluidity of gender and sexuality. Instead of shying away from the original texts’ homoerotic subtext, this is a production that highlights and celebrates queer desire. A climactic fight sequence in the play happens in a gay club with a drag queen singing a version of Hamlet’s ‘to be or not to be’ soliloquy; Antonio expresses his desire upon Sebastian, who he kisses; and Malvolia pines over Olivia.

Tamsin Greig as Malvolia (photo by Marc Brenner)

Most of its appeal would come from casting the brilliant comic actress Tamsin Greig as the traditional male figure of Malvolio, who is now transformed into Malvolia. In Simon Goodwin’s version of the iconic character, she is a representation of a modern day puritan who copes with the unrequited love she has for the countess she serves by imposing strict rules in the place she governs. She treats Olivia’s needs as if it was a form of religion and trots around the stage in her career woman heels and blunt bob, trying to keep the place together. Although, compared to a traditional depiction of the character, Greig’s tragicomic portrayal of Malvolia feels more sympathetic, especially considering her position as a queer woman who is immediately cast as an outsider after defying social rules.

Other traditionally male characters are also transformed into female figures, such as Fabian who was played by Imogen Doel and Feste the fool who was played by Doon Mackichan. Their involvement in the plot against Malvolia shows how the play hints at exploring the cruelty women inflict against each other, especially how society pushes women to compete against each other.

In a production that prioritises the play’s comedic side, it is great at showcasing the cast’s pitch perfect comic timing and performance. In particular, Phoebe Fox shines as the boisterous Olivia and Daniel Rigby is brilliant as the buffoonish yet tragic Sir Andrew Agueecheek. However, due to its quick comedic pacing and focus on farcical pratfalls, the production does miss out on the play’s moments of tragic nuance and thus loses a sense of melancholy that bubbles underneath the surface of its comic mishaps. Yet, it still forms merely a minor flaw in what is otherwise a highly enjoyable and well-acted Shakespeare production to fill your time during this time of self-isolation.

'Twelfth Night' was on as part of National Theatre Live on The National Theatre youtube channel.

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