Twelfth Night

It's said that one first eats with one's eyes. Applying that idea then, if the prospect of spending three hours watching a typically bawdy Shakespeare comedy filled with gender confusion-based misunderstanding turns your stomach, there is much on offer here to tickle your olfactory tastebuds in this – ultimately traditional – Twelfth Night at the National Theatre's Olivier.

Is it worth three hours of your time? Well it definitely is for Greig's performance.

Simon Godwin's direction relies on a playful physicality to create most of the easy gentle comedy and designer Soutra Gilmour's grandiosely imposing centrestage staircase – though possibly irrelevant to the actual setting – stylishly lynchpins the revolve to magically open and close when replacing and revealing the individual sumptuous settings. But once you actually dig in more deeply, there's a lack of substance behind this adornment to really satiate the appetite.

The plot has all the ingredients of most Shakespeare comedies. Woman gets shipwrecked, dresses as manservant, falls in love with Count, who in turn loves other woman but she loves manservant (ie, first woman). And of course there is an interlocking subplot involving three drunken sops that alters the pacing. But here, Godwin extends the initial gender debate with three of the male roles played as female – most notably by Tamsin Greig as the stoic puritanical steward of Olivia's household, Malvolio (or here Malvolia).

Adorning the style of a black bed sheet and and a Mrs Mangel wig, she remains a masculine woman and has a precision to every movement that is fascinating to watch – from the slowest arching finger point that seems to start in the Gods and end on the stage, to her indignation and fussing at the shrubbery when a whisper out of place. It is said she has been "practising her behaviour to her own shadow for the last hour" and Greig makes her performance feel not just blocked in rehearsal but truly embodied to avoid lack of clarity in intent. Whilst her appearance may be of a wispy black shadow, the stage lights up when she appears.

Whilst the subplot is arguably always the most interesting in Twelfth Night – with its dark undercurrent more unusual than the star-crossed searches for love at the fore – here it feels even more the story with depth of character that we care about. When Sirs Toby Belch, Andrew Aguecheek and Olivia's mistress Maria take revenge on Malvolia for reporting their partying by convincing her to change appearance and manner to win Olivia's love, it's no longer just a cruel joke played on an interfering old man we dislike. In the script, just a few pronouns are changed but the result has a wholly different impact – her staid manner now seems the closet in which she has always safely hidden her true gay sexuality and the clown dress, garters and nipple tassles she changes into in order to follow 'Olivia's wishes' seem less funny than usual, more a heart-wrenching nightmare of the bravery of coming out going wrong. When the discovery of the truth breaks her, it's not just anger or embarrassment she feels, it's like her inner security has been cruelly ripped out of her. It is moving to the realms of the unbearable.

But ultimately this is the thread of this production that you want to watch. The main story is very ably performed but it feels like the focus has all been on Malovolia. Elsewhere everything seems to have been thrown in that could be thought of – whilst not really being truly thought of. A Triumph and Vespa drive on only once as if to allude to being in the 60s but doesn't add anything. Olivia's twerking on the staircase during scene revolves – even though she is in constant mourning. No sense of desire or passion between Viola and the Count other than flapping of hands. The female Feste – nicely sang by Doon Mackichan – that lacks the rationale for the cross-cast so clear in Malvolia.

The thing that jars most is the inconsistency of messages it gives around sexuality – which the dealing with the hidden lesbianism brings to the fore and raises expectations. Antonio declares his love for Sebastian and kisses him full on – but there's no reaction from Sebastian either way and as soon as it happens, it's ignored (not purposefully, just forgotten). Aguecheek slow dances too closely with Belch and raises stage eyebrows with its seaside postcard ribaldry. The Count also kisses Sebastian thinking he is Olivia but here no such eyebrows are raised on realisation – he simply continues to kiss. And the addition of a scene in what looks to be a sordid nightclub where a statuesque drag queen sings Hamlet's To Be or Not to Be may be trying to allude to the hidden gay culture in many societies but just seems so out of place as to be from another production. All these references are more like tick box inclusions and offer little more than their face value.

So is it worth three hours of your time? Well it definitely is for Greig's performance – and the rest should be dealt with as being pleasing to the eye and just light frippery which is very accessible. There is some comfort to be had that it hasn't gone the whole way to become just a statement on sexuality – indeed it could be argued that Malvolia's tragedy is the better for standing alone as it does and so engendering more depth. Nevertheless it feels that so much time, effort and thought has been put into this that the remainder just had time for a pretty makeover with not enough behind the make-up.

Reviews by Simon Ximenez

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The Blurb

A ship is wrecked on the rocks. Viola is washed ashore but her twin brother Sebastian is lost. Determined to survive on her own, she steps out to explore a new land.

So begins a whirlwind of mistaken identity and unrequited love. The nearby households of Olivia and Orsino are overrun with passion. Even Olivia's upright housekeeper Malvolia is swept up in the madness.

Where music is the food of love, and nobody is quite what they seem, anything proves possible.

Simon Godwin (Man and Superman, The Beaux' Stratagem) directs this joyous new production with Tamsin Greig as a transformed Malvolia.

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