Time and again, I have heard more than one Shakespeare sceptic question whether the bard’s work is relevant in modern society and culture. The playwright’s supporters all hastily run to his defence, crying out about his powerful themes and incisive understanding of human nature. A better answer, I feel, would be to have those same cynics sit through the latest adaptation of his much loved comedy of reversals, Twelfth Night. Similarly to the National Theatre’s 2011 production of A Comedy of Errors, where the Dromio twins sported Arsenal shirts and Adriana became a stiletto strutting wag, Simon Godwin’s Twelfth Night is full of modern twists. True to form, the National again challenges our expectations with its fresh take on a play concerned with shifting sexuality and fluid gender identities.
On a stage which saw men dressed as women masquerading as men, Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night boldly intimates the complexity of gender and sexual identity. In Godwin’s 2017 production of the same play, a daring choice has been made to extend this discourse with the introduction of ‘Malvolia’. Tamsin Greig’s female interpretation is seamless; she wonderfully reincarnates this much performed character without losing sight of Malvolio’s crucial role in the play. With a pinched face faintly redolent of a much peeved Severus Snape, and a rather severe cropped black bob, Greig maintains the air of austerity which defines the character. Having seen Stephen Fry’s 2012 performance, however, Greig’s Malvolia seems to undergo a much more interesting character development. In this incredibly light-hearted play, there are a number of more sinister moments. After Maria (Niki Wardley) is found cavorting with Sir Toby and his crew she is pulled aside by Malvolia and upbraided for her disorderly conduct. The revelry is ended, despite Maria facing the audience like a naughty child with a marker pen moustache. Malvolia grabs her knot of hair and wrenches her neck backwards, like some kind of back alley thug, as a warning to get back in line.
Malvolia’s transformation, cross-gartered in yellow stockings, is all the more shocking as she becomes a gushing, thrusting cabaret figure, complete with novelty nipple tassels. She struts onto the set wearing a Pierrot shirt, intimating that she is regarded as little more than a pantomime figure. While productions sometimes brush over Malvolio’s cruel embarrassment at the end of the play with a traditional Shakespearean jig and much merriment, Godwin’s adaptation takes pains to show how the outsider is left damaged by their abuse. Malvolia removes her wig as if to unveil her true self and in a desperate final scene stumbles up the steps of a large staircase, still wearing her dirtied yellow leotard (tassels having mysteriously disappeared) like a burning scarlet letter betraying her humiliation. While the ingenious rotating stage shows the characters pairing off, getting married and moving forward, Malvolia is left standing alone in the rain.
The ambiguity of Viola’s (Tamara Lawrance) gender identity is also interesting. At times she embraces her masculine persona, comically pretending to take another man from behind in a show of laddish banter and quite literally sweeping Olivia (Phoebe Fox) off her feet like Prince Charming. However, her timidity in the organised duel with Sir Andrew (Daniel Rigby) and self-conscious touching of knees with Orsino (Oliver Chris) remind us that she is unable to hide her female self. Her costume is perhaps the greatest indicator of this collision of identities. Dressed for most of the play in a long white tunic with black ankle length trousers, her image is a decidedly androgynous 21st century look. This styling serves to remind us that it would be naïve to fall into the trap of accepting the play’s heteronormative ending.
These modern references in clothing are continued by other characters with comedic effect. When Cesario visits Olivia’s house she dons her ‘veil’, aka a pair of black sunglasses, posing with her posse of ladies in waiting like Victoria Beckham ready for the paps. Sir Andrew’s self-conscious fiddling of his edgy top knot similarly triggered a few more audience laughs (perhaps as they touched their own top knots) when he asked of Sir Toby ‘But it becomes me well enough, does’t not?’ Michael Billington has argued that the flagrant sexuality of gay bar the Elephant Inn is a touch excessive, as leather clad men with dog leads around their necks rub each other suggestively and a drag queen stands centre stage, belting out a tune. However, in a production which also sees Sir Toby and his crew of degenerates dancing to rave music and Tamsin Greig strutting about with nipple tassels, it seems strangely fitting.